Experts: EPA Should Examine Common Chemical Combinations

Phthalates are everywhere, but effects of cumulative exposure aren’t studied.

January 16, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—A panel of experts has recommended that the Environmental Protection Agency change the way it measures the potential health risks associated with a family of chemicals known as phthalates, according to a National Research Council report. Phthalates are found in a wide range of consumer products, including many cosmetics, vinyl products, toys, pacifiers, building materials, fragrances, cleaners, and personal-care products, and pretty much anything carrying an artificial scent.

THE DETAILS: At the request of the EPA, the NRC panel pored over research and determined that since people—including unborn children—are exposed to a variety of phthalates and other hormone-disrupting chemicals, the EPA should calculate risk of overall exposure to all of these substances. The recommended approach would entail assessing combined exposure to different substances that cause similar health effects. For instance, lead, methylmercury, and PCBs would be lumped together because they all contribute to lower IQs in children.


Although a recent study linked phthalates in hairspray to a birth defects in baby boys, there is little research on the chemical’s effect on humans. Animal studies suggest some phthalates reduce testosterone levels, mess up male reproductive development and fertility, and lead to undescended testes and deformed penises.

The American Chemistry Council, the group representing the companies churning out these synthetic substances, says an EPA risk assessment would be redundant, since Congress has already asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to conduct one. CPSC is currently being sued by National Resources Defense Council and lambasted by members of Congress for allowing mass production and store stockpiling of toys containing types of phthalates that will be banned in early February.

WHAT IT MEANS: Although the EPA doesn’t have to adopt the recommendations, they bring more attention to the potential risks of hormone-disrupting phthalates (pronounced “THAL-ates”), and could prompt the government to start considering chemical body burden—what happens inside of us when we’re exposed to all sorts of different chemicals.

Take these three steps to put a big dent in your phthalate exposure:

• Use the ingredients listing as a warning label. Things made of PVC or vinyl are packed with phthalates to soften the plastic. Makeup, other personal-care items, and other synthetically scented products also contain phthalates. Here are full ingredient names and abbreviations to dodge, especially in products that make prolonged contact with your body or your food:

• DEHP, di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate
• BzBP, benzylbutyl phthalate
• DBP, di-n-butyl phthalate
• DEP, diethyl phthalate
• DMP, dimethyl phthalate

Environmental Working Group has compiled a database of personal-care items and ranks them in from 0 to 10 in terms of safety.

• Be skeptical of synthetic scents. Phthalates are used to disperse scents in products, and manufacturers often list them simply as “fragrance” or “parfum” on the label. If you want products that carry a pleasant whiff but are safer, chose the ones scented with pure essential oils.

• Don’t take a chemical bath. Vinyl is a big no-no if you’re trying to keep phthalates out of your home. Ditch your vinyl shower curtains and switch to cotton (preferably organic) or hemp ones. "Phthalates can affect hormone levels, so you should avoid them whenever possible," says David O. Carpenter, M.D., the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany. While you’re at it, chose unscented soaps and shampoos free of synthetic chemicals.