Phthalates are one of the most common groups of chemical pollutants in our homes, and are found everywhere in the Western world. We should be extremely wary of these chemicals if we want to prevent health problems at home.
This group includes chemicals such as diethyl hexyl phthalate (DEHP), di-isononyl phthalate (DINP), di-isodecyl phthalate (DIDP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP), diethyl phthalate (DEP) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). Every year, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of phthalates in numerous products, the majority of which are used in our homes, are used in Europe alone. These chemicals can make up a large proportion (up to 30%) of the weight of some plastics e.g. PVC, softeners or plasticisers. They are also emitted from surfaces covered in these plastics, which are widely used in many homes.
They can be found in many other items including: glues and adhesives, electronic devices, building materials, cleaning products, personal care products (gels, shampoos, soaps, lotions, cosmetics etc.), perfumes, packaging, water bottles, paint, varnishes, toys, modelling clay, wax, printer ink, clothes and fabrics, air fresheners and pesticides. Some other studies have found phthalates to be abundant in household dust. They can enter the bloodstream if we inhale them or when we apply products which contain these chemicals to our skin.
There are an enormous number of scientific studies which link this group of chemicals to some health problems, particularly their hormone-disrupting effects. The European Union has banned the use of phthalates in items such as dummies, baby bottle tops and rattles but, for other uses, there are no restrictive measures in place despite the omnipresence of these chemicals in the home e.g. in children’s bedrooms (as well as outside the home, in nurseries for example, where items such as floors, vinyl-covered walls, toys, airbeds, plastic tablecloths etc. may also contain phthalates).
Scientific research has linked phthalates to a variety of possible health effects. Often, these effects can occur at relatively low levels of concentration across a wide section of the population, and there have been studies conducted which looked at prenatal exposure as well as exposure as children and as adults. These possible effects include: childhood asthma and allergies, limited lung function in adult males, sperm damage, abnormalities in male genital development (e.g. undescended testicles), change in testosterone levels, gynecomastia in teenage boys, reduced anogenital distance in newborn boys (a symptom of feminisation), behavioural changes (e.g. feminisation in childhood behaviour), early onset puberty (e.g. premature breast development in young girls), endometriosis, breast cancer, defects of ovarian follicles, premature births, low birth weight (which brings a higher risk of infant mortality and of metabolic and cardiovascular problems in adulthood), ADHD, motor and cognitive development problems in childhood, obesity, insulin resistance (linked to diabetes) etc.