How phthalates taught me to count chemicals - not calories.

Photo by Geof Wilson |

Photo by Geof Wilson |

This article is part of a 6-day series titled "Toxicants in Consumer Products".  The authors, with background knowledge in environmental toxicology, will delve into the most pressing ecotox issues of today.

When my supervisor first suggested phthalates for the basis of my thesis work, the word ‘phthalate’ held no meaning to me - let alone how to pronounce the name (pronounced ‘thall-ates’). But over these past two years my relationship with phthalates has changed from moments of joy at conferences, to moments of agony late at night debugging statistical programs.  Today, I am thankful for studying these pesky little plasticizers because they have given me tools to stop counting calories, and start counting chemicals - let me explain.

Phthalates are used as plasticizers in plastic to make them more malleable, durable, and flexible. In 2011, 12.2 billion lbs. of phthalates were consumed worldwide, which is the equivalent weight of about 800,000 elephants. Additionally, phthalates are ubiquitous in the environment because they are not bonded to the plastic polymer and over time leach into the environment (think of an old plastic water bottle: dried up, shriveled up, and now devoid of phthalates).

Phthalates have high production volume as plasticizers, and leach out into the environment as plastic degrades. But do phthalates pose a health concern? Some phthalates have been identified as possible gender benders: effecting reproductive and developmental processes. The exact possible health effects resulting from phthalate exposure is beyond the scope of this article, but – for me – knowing phthalates could possibly be gender benders was enough to know I wanted to reduce my own individual exposure.

As I continued on my initial literature review, I learned phthalates could be found in insect repellent, shampoo, soap, lotion, medications, industrial solvents, cosmetics, adhesives, vinyl flooring, rubber, soft plastic (especially children’s toys), and food packaging. The strange part though, was I had never heard of phthalates until I had the meeting with my supervisor. So – am I really consuming phthalates?

To make things more difficult, products are only phthalate free if they state “Phthalate Free” on the packaging; this is why it is so easy for me to quickly eliminate what I put in my shopping basket.  Often, if phthalates are not listed under their original connotation, they are hidden in the ingredient labels under the label ‘parafume’ or ‘fragrance’.

If I had never heard of phthalates before, how many other chemicals with possible negative health effects did I unknowingly consume? As a graduate student, I have the time to educate myself on phthalates, but I cannot evaluate every other chemical with the same detail. For this reason, phthalates taught me to read the ingredients labels not for calorie intake, but for chemical intake.

 Like many consumers out there, I had often looked at the caloric count as a quick evaluation of the product. Now I evaluate products based on the number and type of chemicals found in the product labels.

Thankfully, there are apps out there designed to evaluate products based on their chemical make-up, including Good Guide, Skin DeepThink Dirty, and Dirty Dozen.

These apps have barcode scanners, which make it really easy to quickly evaluate products when you are at the store. Once scanned, the app will give the product a score based on the developer’s evaluation method (see ‘behind the rates’ in each app to understand scoring). The score primarily identifies chemicals with the potential to cause adverse health effects, or chemicals that are harmful for the environment. These apps have quickly expanded my knowledge on consumer products I use, and allows me to choose which products to expose myself to.

The past two years of studying phthalates has taught me to be more aware of chemicals in the products I consume, and to limit their presence in my life. Now, I have tools to help me identify products that contain more chemicals than calories.