The mega plastic is polyvinyl chloride, or PVC as it is commonly known, Global production of PVC is 30 million tons per year, or 10 pounds for every person on Earth.
The subtle toxic is phthalates, a dozen similar chemicals that are added to some PVC products to make them tougher or softer. So called vinyl products contain 40 to 50% of the common phthalates diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP).
Examples of these vinyl products (containing phthalates) are: inflatable items (plastic beach balls, plastic rafts), shoes, shower curtains, synthetic leather coverings of car seats and upholstered furniture. Although some upholstered furniture uses polyurethane (a material with no phthalates), rather than PVC. There is good news about the presence of phthalates in cars: since 2007, Nissan, Honda, and Toyota have eliminated vinyl in their car interiors. Another common vinyl product is soft – squeezable – children’s toys. But again, some good news: It is reported that most US companies have voluntarily stopped manufacturing PVC toys with phthalates. As of 2009 a California law prohibits any product for young children from containing more than one-tenth of 1% of phthalates. Nevertheless there is no assurance that imported soft toys are free of phthalates.
Plastic food wraps and microwave containers may be made of PVC containing phthalates, although less than in vinyl products. These products can easily be avoided by not using containers with the number 3 recycle sign.
Some cosmetic products, such as nail enamels and hardeners and skin-care products contain phthalates. Skin lotions pose a higher risk because of a larger area of contact and frequency of application. Phthalates are added to skin lotions to impart an oily texture, giving the impression that the skin itself is soft and moisturized, when in fact it is the phthalate residue that makes the skin feel that way. A patent search by the Environmental Working Group found that (as of 2000) there were 309 patents related to cosmetic products containing a phthalate (usually DBP).
There are products where phthalates are NOT found, e.g., in hard PVC products, such as flooring, house siding, and water pipes. Formerly intravenous bags and delivery tubing in hospitals were made of vinyl; fortunately, most hospitals no longer use vinyl intravenous bags and delivery tubing. This does not mean it is true in all hospital. If in doubt, inquire.
After this rather lengthy description of the “what” of phthalate-containing vinyl products, you are certainly wondering, “What are the health effects of phthalates?” It is difficult to pin down an unambiguous answer because most testing of effects has been done on lab animals, and the effects are often subtle, rather than dramatic, like cancers.
Environmental Health Perspective’s study of CDC (Center for Disease Control) data revealed that bodies of men with abdominal obesity or insulin resistance were more likely to have high levels of phthalates. Additionally, the CDC found that phthalates were 9 times higher in the urine of women between the ages of 20 and 40, than any other segment of the female population, perhaps because they use more cosmetic products.
In test of pregnant women, 13 varieties of phthalates were found, and the level of the most abundant was 225 parts per billion in the urine. This may seem like hardly any, but see my blog of November 15. Blood levels of phthalates in pregnant women were linked to sexual defects in newborn sons. Laboratory tests have shown that in many animals phthalates are linked to reduced fertility, miscarriage, birth defects, testicular damage, and liver and kidney cancers. Both DEHP and DBP have produced dramatic changes in male sexual characteristics when exposure took place during the mother’s pregnancy. The EPA has classified DEHP as a probable human carcinogen. The state of California has classified DBP as a reproductive and developmental toxicant; the European Union has banned its use in cosmetics and personal care products.
In conclusion we again invoke that warning for consumers: Caveat Emptor – be aware of what you are buying; read the labels. As you will discover, this is difficult for cosmetic products such as lipstick and nail polish because the print of ingredient on labels of is often so small as to be nearly unreadable. Nevertheless, the printing on containers of skin lotions is usually readable; avoid those that say “phthalates” or “butyl ester” or “plasticizer.”