We encounter phthalates every day. Plastic manufacturers have used it to increase the quality of plastics by increasing flexibility while retaining durability. However, the chemical composition of the plastic enhancement does not require covalent bonds between the plastics and phthalates. Therefore, in the presence of heat, these dangerous chemicals can leach into the ambient air.

Phthalates, also known as plasticizers, pose a threat to children and adults because in high doses, they have been known act as endocrine disruptors. The endocrine system assists in the regulation of hormones throughout the body, thus making high exposure to phthalates a ubiquitous health concern.

hermetic food boxes on a table

What Are Phthalates?

The plastic manufacturing industry uses phthalates, also known as plasticizers, to enhance the flexibility and durability of their products. The plastic manufacturers mix these additives with their plastic products rather than chemically bonding them, which means eventually the two can separate.

Before being mixed with plastic, the chemical is present as a colorless, odorless liquid. Its chemical properties include low volatility, high solubility in oil, but low solubility in water. They should not reach the ambient air under normal conditions. However, due to the manufacturing method of mixing rather than chemically bonding, exposure to heat or organic solutes can release the chemical into the air. The high molecular weight also makes the plasticizers persistent in the environment, which means that they will stick around for a long time.

Because phthalates have a high solubility in oil, lipids or other fatty substances may absorb the chemical as well, making food prominent source of exposure for humans. Many foods are processed, stored, and transported with exposure to plastics that contain plasticizers, and therefore have likely been in contact with phthalates at least once before reaching the table for consumption.

What Items Contain Phthalates?

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) flooring, which looks like wood, but is actually made of plastic and often chosen for its water resistant and durable qualities, is a common rote of exposure. Over time, the dangerous vapors may leach out of the floor into ambient air or dust. Plastic boxes and containers often have numbered recycling codes. The numbers correspond to the material of the product. Numbers 3 and 7 are known to contain phthalates, and therefore should be avoided.

The CDC states that the main mode of exposure comes from…

eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with containers and products containing phthalates

…and inhaling vapors or dust contaminated with the particles containing trace leached chemicals (CDC National Biomonitoring Program).

However, according to Tox Town, a governmental organization dedicated to informing the public about health concerns and toxic chemicals in the environment, they can be found in cosmetics, personal care products, and:

Consumer products such as flexible plastic and vinyl toys, shower curtains, wallpaper, vinyl miniblinds, food packaging, and plastic wrap, … wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, medical tubing and fluid bags, solvents, insecticides.

That fact of the matter is that almost every sector of our lives relies on hazardous products because our society has become extremely reliant on plastic. Anything that must retain flexibility but also remain durable is likely to have at least one type of phthalate. Some surprising routes of exposure outlined by the Huffington Post include medical devices, drinking water, and dairy products.

Medical devices that deliver IV drips use plastic tubing that contains plasticizers, which means that people can have phthalates being pumped directly into their blood stream. Drinking water that has been polluted by industrial waste can contain high levels of these plasticizers as well. Dairy products, most specifically milk may contain high concentrations of the chemical because during the milking process, the fat in the milk pulls the phthalates out of the tubing due to its high solubility in oil and fats.

Dangers of Phthalates

According to the CDC and FDA the dangers of phthalates have not been sufficiently tested in humans; however, extensive animal studies have revealed possible heath effects in humans. Human studies can be very difficult to perform without a natural or accidental exposure to environmental toxins on a large scale. However because many mammals have similar developmental and hormonal systems in the body, animal studies can have merit.

Phthalates can act as endocrine disruptors, meaning that when absorbed into the blood system at large doses, they can create problems with hormone-controlled systems. Hormones control fertility, growth, metabolism, and the immune system.

Furthermore, they have the potential to cross the placental barrier during pregnancy. Based on animal studies, if a mother is exposed to high levels during her pregnancy, she increases the risk of birth defects, low fertility, genital abnormalities in males, and low birth weight.

Babies and infants have a particularly high risk of exposure because they have close proximity to the floor, which increases the dose of leached vapors from flooring plastics or finishes, and they often chew on plastic toys that can contain plasticizers. This exposure can pose a large risk of developmental problems including low fertility, low body weight, and asthma.

How to Guard from Phthalates

The pervasive presence of phthalates in our lives today can seem daunting. However, there are ways to decrease your exposure to the plasticizers:

  • Avoid putting any plastic products in the microwave;
  • Store and heat food in glassware, ceramic ware, or stainless steel;
  • Use products that have “no synthetic fragrance”;
  • Look for plastic products that have recycling codes and AVOID 3, 6, and 7;
  • Eat organic food whenever possible;
  • Get a water filter;
  • Wet mop your home regularly to keep phthalate containing dust from sticking.


Although phthalates are dangerous to human health, its use continues to be widespread. The best way to make sure it doesn’t pose a direct risk to you is to follow the above steps and always check the label of the products you are about to consume or consume from.

Image from depositphotos.com.