Experts Recommend Ban on Phthalates in Plastics
Synthetic chemicals called phthalates are damaging children’s brain development and therefore must be immediately banned from consumer products, according to a group of scientists and health professionals from Project TENDR, (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks), a group of scientists, health professionals, and child advocates working to study and reduce children’s exposure to neurotoxic chemicals and pollutants.
“We have enough evidence right now to be concerned about the impact of these chemicals on a child’s risk of attention, learning and behavioral disorders,” said Stephanie Engel, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. Called “everywhere chemicals” because they are so common, phthalates are added to consumer products to make the plastic more flexible and harder to break.
Phthalates are found in hundreds of auto, home, food and personal care items: food packaging; detergents; vinyl flooring, clothing, furniture and shower curtains; automotive plastics; lubricating oils and adhesives; rain and stain-resistant products; and scores of products including shampoo, soap, hair spray and nail polish, in which they make fragrances last longer.
Under current US Food and Drug Administration regulations, phthalates can be simply labeled “fragrance,” even though they could be as much as 20% of the product.
Phthalates are also in PVC plumbing and building products and items such as medical tubing, garden hoses, and some children’s toys. Globally, approximately 8.4 million metric tons of phthalates and other plasticizers are consumed annually, according to European Plasticizers, an industry trade association.
Studies have connected phthalates to childhood obesity, asthma, cardiovascular issues, cancer and reproductive problems such as genital malformations and undescended testes in baby boys and low sperm counts and testosterone levels in adult males.
The new call to action, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, focuses specifically on the link between phthalate exposure and long-lasting neurodevelopmental harm in fetuses, infants and children. By 2019, more than 30 studies had examined prenatal exposure to different types of phthalates, and long-term studies had been done in 11 different countries or territories around the globe, the report said.
The report said the strongest associations have been found with hyperactivity, aggression, defiance, emotional reactivity, delinquent behaviors and other signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, after exposure to phthalates.
Unlike toxic metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury, phthalates are more rapidly metabolized and typically leave the body once exposure is removed. “They have much shorter biological half lives than, say, the heavy metals, which can hang around for decades,” said David Bellinger, a professor of neurology and psychology at Boston Children’s Hospital and a member of Project TENDR who was not involved in the new paper. The problem, Bellinger added, is that once the baby’s developing brain is impacted by the chemical in utero, the damage has been done.
The paper called for the elimination of the entire class of phthalates from products that lead to the exposure of pregnant women, women of reproductive age, infants and children.
Banning them one-by-one won’t adequately lessen the threat, Engel said. “We’re exposed to multiple phthalates, and that mixture can come within a single product, but also across multiple products that people are exposed to in a day,” Engel said. “The reality is that we need to think of phthalates as a class because that’s how people are exposed to them.”
The movement toward elimination is heading mainstream, as more and more medical associations begin to question the lasting impacts of plastic additives. Last year’s petition, for example, is supported by 11 groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and the Center for Food Safety.
Not only is it time that regulators take definitive action to address these ubiquitous chemicals in our environment, consumers also should be voting with their pocketbooks, stated Linda Birnbaum PhD, former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.