What are phthalates? Why do phthalates exist?

Phthalates are a class of chemicals that primarily serve the function of carrying scents or making plastics flexible, transparent, or durable. Phthalates can be found in: PVC, flooring, furniture, medical devices, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, inks, personal care products, cosmetics, household cleaning products, clothing, and much more.

What’s the problem with phthalates?

The short answer is that phthalates are everywhere, they are easily taken up by humans and wildlife, and they are associated with numerous health problems, notably reproductive health.

With plastic being so prevalent in our society, so are plasticizers in the form of phthalates. Phthalates don’t form molecular bonds with the plastics and are therefore relatively easily released into the environment. People are exposed to phthalates primarily by drinking or eating foods that have been in contact with phthalates, breathing air that contains phthalate particles or vapors, and in the case of small children, hand to mouth contact with objects that contain phthalates or phthalate dust1. And, Phthalates have been found in almost 100% of Americans tested.

The health problems associated with exposure to phthalates include endocrine disruption, reproductive and developmental effects, cancer2, damage to the liver3, allergies and asthma4, and diabetes5. In particular, there are six phthalates that have been banned in the US for children’s toys: DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, DIDP and DnOP6.

Are there alternatives?

There are alternatives to phthalates. Some alternatives have been found to be safe for humans, some have been found to be of concern, and some have not been studied7. We need to eliminate our use of phthalates and, when necessary, replace them with alternatives that have been deemed safe for humans and the environment.

What is Zero Waste Washington doing about phthalates?

Right now, Zero Waste Washington is working with partners on a project to identify and reduce the largest sources of phthalates from outdoor products in proximity to two Superfund sites in Puget Sound. We will test outdoor products (such as street paint, building caulking, fencing material, traffic cones, etc.) for phthalate concentrations and conduct outreach to businesses and agencies about alternative products that contain low/no phthalates. The project will be overseen by an Advisory Committee of agencies who conduct source control activities in the Seattle Duwamish River and Tacoma Commencement Bay cleanup areas. The goals are to reduce phthalates input into stormwater and improve source control, reduce impacts to humans who use the products, and provide information that can be used locally and nationally as we move away from toxic chemicals in products which cause impacts both during use and at end of the life of those products.