For starters, look for phthalate-free labels, stop nuking in plastic and throw away the air fresheners!
I was visiting my friend Denise the other day and noticed her adorable baby grandson happily chewing on a pastel blue plastic teething ring. I was surprised because I thought she knew that soft plastics contain phthalates. “He’s fine,” she said. “California banned phthalates in children’s toys.”
I sighed. I don’t like being the bearer of bad news. “They did ban them, but it doesn’t take effect until January 2009.” She promptly took the teething ring from him and he howled. She gave him her dirty finger to chew on instead, but he’ll be better for it. Phthalates block androgens, or male hormones, and can interfere with normal genital development in boys. Even the medical journal Pediatrics, in a 2003 report titled Pediatric Exposure and Potential Toxicity of Phthalate Plasticizers, noted, “The most sensitive [to the effects of phthalates] system is the immature male reproductive tract.”
What are Phthalates?
Phthalates (pronounced thal-ates) are chemicals that soften plastic. That new toy and new shower curtain smell is phthalates off gassing. They’re also found in medical supplies such as IV tubes and drip bags, plastic food wrapping and containers, and most ubiquitously in fragrances of every description, from scented candles and (so-called) air fresheners, to fabric softeners and perfumes. And let’s not forget nail polish.
The National Resources Defense Council measured phthalates in a variety of air fresheners and found that 80 percent of them contained phthalates. (They didn’t measure for other common ingredients in fragranced products, including benzene, formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Natural Air Fresheners
— Pure essential oils
— Boil cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves
— Fragrant flowers in vases
— Open a window
To be fair, most of the companies that manufacture baby bottle nipples, teethers, pacifiers and toys for infants had already removed the phthalates, long before the California ban. But… it’s not illegal yet, so unless it says “phthalate free” on the packaging, it’s best not to make assumptions.
All of us are walking around with phthalates in our bodies, but babies are much more susceptible to the hormonal havoc they can cause. Ironically babies are also heavily exposed to phthalates when parents, believing they’re doing the best possible thing for their baby, use powders, lotions, soaps and shampoos—most of them contain phthalates.
Phthalates are Not Just Harmful to Little Boys
There’s a good chance that phthalates also contribute to allergies and eczema in children, and early puberty in girls. In rodent studies, over-exposure in the womb causes reproductive birth defects.
In men, high phthalate levels can cause sluggish sperm and low androgen levels. Guys, if you want to make a baby, leave the cologne in the medicine cabinet, blow out the scented candles, and for heaven’s sake get rid of that pine tree-shaped air freshener hanging on the rear view mirror. Stop nuking your food in plastic and toss the hair gel. Phthalates literally block androgen receptors, so that male hormones can’t plug in and give their male hormone messages to cells.
At this moment in human history those of us who live in industrialized countries can’t get away from phthalates—they’re literally everywhere. But we can minimize our exposure by reading labels and opting for cleaner, greener products.
Two new bills have been introduced to the California Senate that would ban the use of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in food packaging (think pizza boxes and fast food wrappers), and the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles and other food-associated plastics used by children. PFCs and BPA are known carcinogens, and like pthalates, BPA is linked to early puberty.