Risky Convenience

Ponchos containing phthalates

These ponchos were tested for — and contain — phthalates.
Cropped image. CHEJ, Flickr. CC License.

Plastic is handy. It’s lightweight, doesn’t break easily, is waterproof, comes in attractive colors, and can be molded to any shape. But what does this convenience cost us?

Multiple health concerns in children — including male birth defects, asthma, and behavioral deficits — are attributed to a group of common plastic additives: phthalates (pronounced THAL-ātes). Phthalates serve to make vinyl (PVC) flexible. They also occur in artificial fragrances, such as perfume and air fresheners.

These harmful additives, however, aren’t needed. After a four-year phase-out period ended in February, the European Union banned six of the most harmful phthalates from all products. Europe’s REACH regulators consider these phthalates “Substances of Very High Concern”.

The United States also recognizes phthalates as hazardous, banning three of them (DBP, DEHP, BBP) in children’s toys and certain child care articles in 2009. Three other phthalates (DINP, DnOP, DIDP) were banned temporarily for products children put in their mouths, as well as child care articles. But many household goods, cosmetics (including perfume and nail polish), and cleaners (e.g., air fresheners, “plug-ins”, etc.) — which children are exposed to regularly — still contain phthalates.

The health effects are not exclusive to children. Phthalates are linked to reduced testosterone levels, increased pregnancy losses, and increased breast cancer risk in adults.

The Ecology Center, a local non-profit, tests everyday items for harmful chemicals through its HealthyStuff program. Last year, dangerous phthalate levels were found in vinyl three-ring binders, shower curtains, and iPod chargers from Walgreens. In February 2015, a new dollar store report revealed high levels of phthalates in vinyl floor runners, silly straws, pencil pouches, and bathtub appliqués. And this March, HealthyStuff is wrapping up phthalates testing of vinyl floor tiles from several popular retailers. Stay tuned for results!

Concerned consumers should minimize their use of vinyl (recycling #3) whenever possible. Choose natural materials, like washable cloth shower curtains, cardboard binders, cotton or jute floor runners, and use natural fragrances for home and body. (Remember baking soda and vinegar absorb odors in the home rather than covering them up. You can also choose healthier cleaning solutions using these recipes.)

Avoid vinyl in all child care products, even if they are free of the six phthalates restricted by federal law. Manufacturers have begun to use a variety of different chemicals as alternative plasticizers in vinyl, some of which have properties similar to those of phthalates. Yet the health effects of these alternatives aren’t well studied.

Items of special concern are surfaces where babies and children sleep, such as nap mats, playpens, changing pads, vinyl mattresses, waterproof mattress covers. Heat, including body heat, increases the off-gassing of plasticizer chemicals. Also, a new study published in Environmental Science & Technology reveals that the breathing zone of an infant sleeping on a vinyl crib mattress cover can have four times the amount of plasticizer chemicals.

Concerned citizens can also ask state and federal legislators to protect the health of Americans just as Europe protects its citizens. After all, toxic for one, toxic for all.

– Melissa Cooper Sargent, Environmental Health Educator with LocalMotionGreen at Ecology Center. For more information, you can email her at melissas@ecocenter.org or visit http://www.ecocenter.org/lmg. 

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