Why are phthalates such a health concern?
Rather than starting today’s episode with a question, I’d like to invite you to notice what you feel as you hear this.
It sounds like gluten might be causing that.
Did you feel yourself tense up? Did you roll your eyes?
If you felt either of these responses or some other degree of repulsion, we share something in common. For years, I rolled my eyes when I heard that excuse and heard gluten-free diet touted as a cure all. Could gluten really be the devil causing so much disease and distress in so many lives?
While gluten may be a stock answer for the cause of a dis-ease, and for good reason because gluten has been linked to so many health concerns and conditions, it often feels like a lazy answer, and oftentimes, it is. While a gluten-free diet can help so much in controlling a number of health conditions, it’s often the easiest way to approach those diseases. It’s usually a less time consuming and cheaper alternative to deeper work, and oftentimes yields real results, and for that reason, it’s so worthy of consideration.
Today’s episode isn’t about gluten at all, but rather phthalates, the gluten equivalent in the plastics world.
In today’s episode, we’re talking about phthalates:
- What they are
- Why they pose significant health concerns
- Where they’re found and why they’re used
- And, how can you avoid them in your daily life?
We’re also going to be talking about a common misconception when it comes to assessing a product’s sustainability. For plastic containers, often, ease of recyclability is used as the metric to assess their eco-friendliness & sustainability. In this episode, we’ll talk about how recyclability is just one small piece of the environmental impact conversation and talk about what phthalates have to do with PET plastic, that plastic with the number 1 printed on it.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible. For this reason, they’re often called plasticizers, and in this capacity, they’re most commonly used to soften PVC. What scent comes to mind when you think new shower curtain smell? That’s phthalates in action making the vinyl shower curtain more pliable and more transparent.
Phthalates are also used in synthetic fragrances to help make the scent linger. And, in printing inks, and in nail polish to make it non-chip, and in vinyl paints, and in some enteric coatings for tablets, and also in some IV bags, and in any plastic container with a 1 printed on it. In other words, phthalates are everywhere, and it only took them a century to get there. They were first introduced as plastic softeners and in products like insect repellent in the 1920s.
Phthalates can leach into food from the plastic used in food packaging, and they’re particularly widespread in milk and spices according to a 2013 study conducted by University of Washington.
They’re also not well broken down in the environment and a number of studies document that phthalates have been found in higher bird and mammal species.
You might have noticed I mentioned phthalates are a group of molecules. So, how can you identify a phthalate? Phthalates usually have long chemical names that represent their side chains, R and R’. Let’s talk about the basic structure of a phthalate.
All phthalates contain the structure of phthalic acid with a couple of substitutions. Phthalic acid is an aromatic dicarboxylic acid, meaning that it has two acid groups on the molecule and for each phthalate, the OH group for both of those acids is replaced by an R and possibly an R’ group. R signifies an organic piece of the molecule, which means the R group contains one or more carbons. If the side groups are different, the second R group is designated R’.
Those R and R’ side groups determine the molecular weight of the phthalate and also the name of the phthalate.
What risk do phthalates really pose to human health?
Forewarning, strap in. I anticipated to find that phthalates were implicated in fertility and reproductive development. I had no idea they’re also implicated in a number of cancers, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and a whole host of other health conditions… maybe now’s the time to ask whether you think I overstated phthalates are the gluten of the plastic world.
And, there’s not just a little bit of research on any one of these, there’s overwhelming evidence.
When phthalates are broken down by the body, those breakdown compounds act as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) interfering with different endocrine molecular signalling pathways.
Most notably, phthalates interfere with fetal development, specifically relating to fetal development of reproductive organs in boys, and phthalates have been linked to conditions in newborns that are associated with long-term risk of testicular cancer, namely undescended testicle.
Phthalates also interfere with sperm count and sperm health, and aside from healthy reproductive organ growth of boys during pregnancy, phthalates interfere with fetal development, reducing placntal weight, resulting in pre-term delivery, and can cause miscarriage. Each phthalate behaves slightly differently depending on those side groups.
And, the problem with phthalates doesn’t stop at just reproductive concerns. Phthalates are being investigated for their role in thyroid system disruption. An association between urinary concentration of phthalates and thyroid hormones found an inverse relationship between phthalate levels in urine and circulating levels of free T4 meaning that when phthalate levels in urine were higher, circulating levels of free T4 were lower. High doses of the phthalate DEHP caused hyperplasia and hypertrophy of the thyroid.
Phthalates also cause higher levels of reactive oxygen species, which leads to cellular death, and this is one of the proposed ways that phthalates reduce sperm count and also one of the proposed ways that phthalates might contribute to increased risk of cancer. Phthalates have been correlated with several different cancer types. I’m not one to jump on many bandwagons, however, when the research overwhelmingly implicates phthalates in a host of diseases and conditions, well, I go with the science, and the science suggest phthalates really are just that bad, and that’s before mentioning their correlation with Type 2 Diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease… they’re kind of like the gluten of the plastic world.
And, estimates are that we’re exposed to a lot of phthalates each day. How much is a lot? Well, studies estimate we get a dose of 1 gram or more of phthalates each day. A gram is about a quarter of a teaspoon. And, just for comparison, your daily recommended amount of vitamin C is 0.1 grams, or 10% of your likely daily dose of phthalates. The US EPA has established a tolerable daily intake for a few phthalates between 80 (DEHP) micrograms/kg body weight/day and 3500 (MMP), which for a 120 lb person converts to between 0.043 grams and 0.19 grams.
A quick note about PET plastic
PET (aka PETE or PETG) plastics (polyethylene terephthalate) appear not to pose the same risk as phthalates. For phthalates, the R (and R' groups) are in the 1 and 2 positions of the molecule, and for terephthalates, the R (and R' groups) are in the 1 and 4 positions, and due to this difference in spatial layout, terephthalates don't seem to be able to bind to receptors within the body in the same way as phthalates, so this is a long winded way of saying, PET plastics aren't a source of concern.
Where are phthalates found?
Aside from shower curtains, where are you getting exposed to phthalates on a daily basis?
Nail polish, air fresheners, candles, fragranced skincare products, even your laundry detergent.
For skincare and household items like air fresheners and candles, opt for companies using phthalate free synthetic fragrances or even better, switch to products fragranced with essential oils.
You can pick up a plant based candle complete with cotton wicks and scented with essential oils at Rain Organica along with a hand-made terra cotta essential oil diffuser disk for your car and other small spaces.
Next week, we’re continuing sustainability talk with an episode on how dietary choices and carbon footprints.
Now it’s time for this week’s In Tune segment.
Would you be willing to set aside 15 minutes this week to try an experiment? Set a timer for 15 minutes. Then, sit and notice your breath during that 15-minute window. As thoughts pass through your mind, bring your attention back to your breath. If you get overly anxious, know that you’re free to discontinue at any time.
What’s the point of this exercise? If you’ve tried meditation before, have you tried meditating without guidance or without music? Do you know whether you are comfortable sitting with your thoughts and your breath for an entire space of 15 minutes?
Were you able to complete the exercise? Did you feel anxious or nervous or worried during this session?
I’d love for you to share your experience with this exercise. You can always reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by DM on Instagram @rainorganica or on Pinterest @rainorganica.
Do you have a meditation practice? If you’d like to try meditation or grow your current practice, you can find links to a few of my favorite guided meditations in today’s shownotes.
Thank you so much for tuning into today’s episode.
If you'd like to download your free guide of common household items containing phthalates and alternatives to those, sign up for Rain Organica's newsletter to claim your free guide.
Until next time,
Guided Meditation Links
Jeremy Falk: I love Jeremy's guided meditations, and if you subscribe to Audible, you can often get these free.
Cassie Uhl (founder of Zenned Out): Moon meditations to track the natural rhythms of the moon. This one isn't free, but it's oh so worth it.
Asana Rebel: Exercise app that also includes some great guided meditations.
Insight Timer: Free guided meditations for yogic (pranic) breathing
About the Author
Brandy's a formulation scientist and self-proclaimed health geek who loves hiking, gardening, bird-watching, and body boarding.
Her struggle with acne during her teens and 20s led to a holistic and healthy approach to skincare, embracing skin as an organ to be loved and cared for rather than a canvas to wage war on.
Since 2008, she's been developing all-in-one products for a simple routine at home, & Rain Organica started when her backpacking friends asked for a portable skincare routine to keep their skin healthy & happy on and off the trails.
You can try Rain Organica for yourself with The Essentials Kit, a complete skincare routine in just 3 steps.
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