You likely give careful consideration to your child’s nutrition, safety and schooling. But, did you know the simple plastic toys they play with each day may pose a danger to their health and wellness?
Unfortunately, the chemicals found in your child’s toys may also inhabit your floors, kitchen storage, shower curtains and laundry detergents.1 Some chemicals are so dangerous they have been banned from use in consumer products, and others just from use in children’s products.
Chemicals that have been banned in children’s toys may be used in flooring where your child crawls, and may be absorbed through their hands and ingested or inhaled via dust.
One of the world’s largest chemical companies is now fighting to continue use of phthalates — chemicals with known endocrine disrupting effects. Children, whose neurological and endocrine systems are still developing, are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of phthalates.
ExxonMobil Fighting to Prove Safety of Phthalates
ExxonMobil is the world’s largest publicly held gas and oil company. Its CEO, Rex Tillerson, has spent years prioritizing corporate interests over those of consumers and the environment.
Tillerson joined the company in 1975. A recent report demonstrates the petroleum company understood the link between fossil fuel use and warming climate as early as 1977.2
In the following years, the company attempted to refute the idea, protecting their interest in the oil industry.3 Only recently did they publicly acknowledge the link and appear to be in support of finding a solution.
However, while ExxonMobil has a significant financial stake in the production of fossil fuel to generate energy for cars and manufacturing, they also produce other products.
More than 25 percent of their $16 billion net profit in 2015 resulted from the sales of other petroleum-based products, including plastics, batteries, synthetic fibers, household detergents and tires.4 One of the chemicals produced by ExxonMobil is the family of phthalates, chemicals used to make plastic pliable.
Is Exxon Pressuring Consumer Products Safety Commission to Green-Light Dangerous Phthalates?
Since the health risks from exposure to phthalates are significant, Congress limited or banned the use of several phthalates in 2008. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) was also directed to investigate whether more should be removed from children’s products.
In their final report in 2014, the CPSC recommended banning eight phthalates from children’s toys. However, despite the mandated timeframe of 180 days in 2014, the CPSC has yet to finalize their ban.
Instead, ExxonMobil continues to insist the product produces no harm and has been working hard to reverse the committee decision. According to Eve Gartner, an Earthjustice attorney:5
“Exxon has been sending letters, having meetings, they’re just constantly in CPSC’s face in a way designed to suggest that, if you go the wrong way on this, we’re going to sue you.”
Sources of Phthalate Exposure
Phthalates are also called plasticizers as they are added to plastics to make them more pliable. There are approximately a dozen different types of phthalates, most having a different method of entering your body and different health effects.6
Most of the phthalates are grouped into low or high molecular weight, depending upon their atomic weight (the weight of atoms in a molecule).
Although most phthalates have a half-life of 24 to 48 hours, recent studies have detected a toxic load of phthalates in urine, blood and breast milk. Higher levels are evident in people who eat from fast food restaurants as the food is packaged in plastic and/or non-stick wrappers.7
You may be exposed to phthalates through the air you breathe, food and water, cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products. Vinyl products and other plastic materials also leak phthalates into your environment and increase your exposure.8
Children are exposed through teething toys, plastic toys, breathing household dust or through the use of medical devices.
Although the chemicals break down and are excreted within 96 hours, your constant exposure to products made with phthalates virtually guarantees the chemicals remain in your body. Since the chemicals are lipid soluble, they’re stored in your fat cells and, when released, contribute to the level of phthalates found in your urine.9
Phthalates that fall into the low molecular weight category may be absorbed through your skin. These types of phthalates are commonly found in personal care products. Unfortunately, these chemicals also make it easier for your body to absorb other chemicals.10
A 2015 study demonstrated the phthalates found in the air could also be absorbed through the skin.11
Phthalates are one of the most pervasive of all known endocrine disruptors. According to estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 470 million pounds of phthalates are produced every year.12
Since phthalates are so prevalent in personal care products, women tend to have higher levels in their system than men.
Endocrine Disruptors Affect Your Whole Body
Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors, meaning they are chemicals that interfere with the function of your body’s endocrine system. As a whole, your endocrine system is instrumental in regulating your growth and development, metabolism, sexual function, reproduction, tissue function and mood.
From animal studies, scientists have discovered many of the mechanisms used by chemicals that disrupt your endocrine system and how they alter your hormone functions. Many of these discoveries have been made in the past two decades.13
As a general rule, these chemicals mimic natural hormones, thereby tricking your body into an exaggerated response. For instance, chemicals that mimic estrogen may trigger growth of breast cancer cells that depend on estrogen.
They may also block hormones from reaching receptors, reducing the response to a stimulus, such as blocking growth hormone needed for normal development.14
In other cases, chemical endocrine disruptors may directly inhibit or stimulate your hormonal system and cause an under or overproduction, such as an underactive or overactive thyroid. Chemicals may also block the way your natural hormones or receptors are made or controlled, such as altering liver metabolism.15
In animals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been found to affect reproduction.16 Although some disappear from nature quickly, others endure. Aquatic animals, and especially carnivores, have been significantly affected by chemical pollution, as they are at the top of the food chain where higher levels of chemicals build up over time.
Other changes in wildlife populations that have been traced back to endocrine-disrupting chemicals include:17
Baltic seal population reduction
Eggshell thinning in birds of prey
Alligator population decrease in a polluted lake
Frog population decrease
Male sex organs on female marine animals such as whelks and snails
Negative effects on fish reproduction and development
Phthalates Linked to Male Reproductive Problems
In a study led by environmental health scientist Richard Pilsner, Ph.D., at the University of Massachusetts, researchers determined that a father’s preconception exposure to phthalates led to a pronounced decrease in blastocyst quality.18 Once fertilization of the egg is achieved, the zygote begins to divide or cleave.19 This happens repeatedly in the first three to five days. At this point the embryo becomes a hollow ball of cells called a blastocyst. It is at this stage in vitro fertilization is attempted.
The study evaluated immature eggs from 50 couples undergoing in vitro fertilization. There were 761 oocytes, or immature eggs, in the study, of which only 184 developed well enough to be transferred to the prospective mother. The researchers found an inverse association between men who had high levels of phthalates in their urine and the development of high-quality blastocysts.20
In other studies, researchers have linked female exposure to phthalates with altered genital formation in baby boys.21,22 More specifically, boys born with a shorter anogenital distance and a smaller penis. The former is a marker for endocrine disruption and potentially infertility.
Longer anogenital distances are associated with improved ability to father a child and may predict reproductive potential.23Shanna Swan, Ph.D., of The Mindich Child Health and Development Institute at Mount Sinai, lead author of a study showing that mothers who had higher levels of phthalates in their system had an increased risk of giving birth to boys with reduced anogenital distance, said:24
“Our findings show that even at low levels, environmental exposure to these ubiquitous chemicals can adversely affect male genital development, which in turn may impact male reproductive health later in life. Because most pregnant women are exposed to phthalates, our findings not only have a profound effect on public health, but on the public policies meant to protect women as well as the general population.”
Health Conditions Triggered by Phthalates
Researchers often focus on high levels of exposure to toxins and the endpoint health effects that may develop. However, lower levels of exposure may still result in health effects that can negatively impact the way in which your body functions. Low-dose exposure prenatally, during childhood and even into adulthood may result in long-term health conditions.
For instance, several studies in the last decade have linked inhaled exposure to phthalates with asthma and respiratory allergic reactions. This type of reaction has been linked with the high molecular weight phthalates, such as DEHP and BBP.25,26
A study from Columbia University was the first to demonstrate an association between childhood asthma and prenatal exposure to phthalates. Children born to mothers exposed to higher levels of butylbenzyl phthalate (BBzP) and di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) during pregnancy had a greater than 70 percent increased risk of developing asthma between age 5 and 11.27
Studies have also linked phthalate exposure during early childhood with delayed puberty in girls.28 Previous studies have linked phthalate exposure to thyroid dysfunction and an imbalance of growth hormones.
A recent study in Environmental Research evaluated both adults and children and found exposure to phthalates negatively influenced the production of thyroid hormones and balance of growth hormone.29 In the past few years, scientists have also linked phthalate exposure to:30,31,32,33
Anything you can do to reduce your and your child’s exposure to toxic chemicals is a move in the right direction. Although it’s virtually impossible to steer clear of ALL potentially hazardous chemicals, you can certainly minimize your exposure by keeping some key principles in mind.
Avoid plastic food containers and plastic wrap. Store food and drinks in glass containers instead.
Avoid plastic children’s toys. Use toys made of natural substances, such as wood and organic materials.
Read labels on your cosmetics and avoid those containing phthalates.
Avoid products labeled with “fragrance” as this catch-all term may include hidden phthalates which are commonly used to stabilize the scent and extend the life of the product. Avoid air fresheners.
Use personal care products stored in glass containers.
Read labels looking for PVC-free products, including children’s lunch boxes, backpacks and storage containers.
Do not microwave plastic containers or plastic wrap.
Dust rooms with vinyl blinds, wallpaper, flooring and furniture that may contain phthalates as the chemical collects in dust on the floor and is easily ingested by children.
Ask your pharmacist if your prescription pills are coated to control when they dissolve as the coating may contain phthalates.
Eat mostly fresh, raw whole foods. Packaging is often a source of phthalates.
Buy products in glass bottles instead of plastic or cans and use glass baby bottles instead of plastic. Breastfeed exclusively for the first year if you can to avoid plastic nipples and bottles all together.
Remove your fruit and vegetables from plastic bags immediately after coming home from the grocery store and wash them before storage.
Cash register receipts are heat printed and often contain BPA. Handle the receipt as little as possible and ask the store to switch to BPA-free receipts.
Use natural cleaning products or make your own.
Replace feminine hygiene products with safer alternatives.
Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets; make your own to reduce static cling.
Check your home’s tap water for contaminants and filter the water if necessary.
Teach your children not to drink from the garden hose, as many are made from plasticizers such as phthalates.