Study Suggests We're Eating Shampoo Chemicals

A common plastic chemical used in everything from shampoo to vinyl flooring is turning up in our food, according to the new research.

April 20, 2010

What's really in the food you're eating?

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Phthalates are everywhere. The plasticizing, hormone-disrupting chemicals are commonly used in shampoos, lotions, soaps, cleaners, and perfumes to carry artificial fragrances, in makeup to keep the product sticking to your skin longer, and to soften rigid plastic into flexible vinyl products. Although exposure has been linked to disruptive or problem behavior in kids, eczema, asthma, and other ills, the chemical is still in wide use. And according to a 2010 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, these chemicals are winding up in our food supply, too. "Phthalates could be contaminating food at a number of points in the processing and supply chain," explains study author Justin Colacino, MPH, a PhD student in the department of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Some phthalates are also used in pesticides, so fruit and vegetables could be contaminated through direct application. Animals could also be exposed to phthalates through consumption of contaminated water or feed."


THE DETAILS: Researchers at the University of Michigan analyzed data collected from a national health and nutrition survey and compared diet with the amount of phthalate breakdown material—that is, by-products indicating the chemical's presence in the body—found in urine samples. They found that the people who ate more poultry had higher di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, known as DEHP; higher veggie consumption, particularly potatoes and tomatoes, was associated with higher levels of the breakdown of diethyl phthalate (DEP), a lower molecular-weight phthalate commonly used in perfumes and scented personal-care products. The type found in poultry is most commonly used as a plasticizer to soften PVC plastic into vinyl.

WHAT IT MEANS: With millions of tons of phthalate chemicals produced each year for use in various consumer products and pesticides, it's nearly impossible to cut your exposure to zero. And scientists are going to have to perform follow-up studies investigating Colacino's findings to get a better handle on where the biggest sources of contamination are coming from. However, Colacino says there's a general consensus regarding the main routes of phthalate exposure, and they include food, personal-care products, and contaminated dust. Food contamination could occur several ways, including phthalates in pesticides applied to crops, or phthalates built up in human sewage sludge from products that wash down our drains (and believe it or not, some nonorganic food producers use sewage sludge on their crops). On the meat side, the animals themselves could be exposed to phthalates, potentially from their feed. Another possible source involves how the meat is handled post-slaughter. "Phthalate contamination could occur if the meat is stored in PVC plastic containers during processing. Food packaging itself has also been shown to contain phthalates, including the glues, adhesives, and dyes used," explains Colacino.

So what can be done about these chemcials, if they're in…well, almost everything? The problem may seem overwhelming, but you can take action. "The best way for people to protect themselves from emerging pollutants like phthalates is to take an active stance both as a consumer and a citizen. If people demand phthalate-free products, manufacturers will listen," says Colacino, who cites the recent removal of BPA from most baby bottles as an example of consumers taking action to force change. "Additionally, individuals can ask their congressmen and congresswomen to petition to expand the USDA's Pesticide Data Program, which measures levels of pesticides in the U.S. food supply, to include new contaminants like phthalates."

In the meantime, here are some ways to cut down on phthalate exposure:

• Eat organic. Pesticides may contain phthalates in the inert ingredients, and they can be introduced by other agrichemical farming processes that are banned in organic agriculture. "Sewage-sludge application could certainly be a potential route of contamination on crop fields," explains Colacino. "Scientists have detected phthalates as well as other endocrine-disrupting compounds in sewage sludge."

• Eat whole foods. Colacino's study raises many questions, such as which foods are most tainted with phthalates, and what are the biggest sources of exposure. "As far as food goes, a follow-up study will be necessary to see which food products specifically have the highest levels of phthalates," he says. "However, consumers would be well served to eat a wide variety of unprocessed foods, as most nutritionists recommend."

• Phase out household phthalates. Choose unscented personal-care, cleaning, and laundry products as often as possible. Check labels and avoid products with "perfume," "parfum," "fragrance" or "masking agents" on the ingredients list. Synthetically scented products likely contain phthalates or other harmful chemicals that can pollute indoor air, be absorbed through our skin, and go down the drain, where they then can continue to pollute our water supply. Especially avoid vinyl—whether it's in a shower curtain, vinyl flooring, or a plastic rubber ducky—whenever possible.