Eco Wise

A Warning About Plastics

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Phthalates. It's a word tricky to pronounce (THAL-ates) and even harder to spell, but it's a big buzzword among the eco-conscious set. Phthalates are a group of chemical compounds used to make plastics such as vinyl and PVC more flexible. They're what you smell when you get a new car, pool float or shower curtain; many common items -- shampoo, "pleather" shoes, vinyl blinds, medical tubing -- contain them.

Yet despite their prevalence in everyday products, they're potentially scary stuff. Several reports have linked phthalates to reproductive harm and hormonal changes in laboratory animals; a widely cited 2005 study led by a team from the University of Rochester in New York found a link between pregnant women's exposure to the chemicals and developmental problems in boys' reproductive systems. Six types of phthalates have been banned or restricted in the European Union for use in children's toys. However, the Environmental Protection Agency lists only one as a probable human carcinogen, and the plastics industry has its own Web site arguing for the safety of phthalates, http://www.phthalates.org.

Exposure to phthalates seems impossible to escape in industrial society; in 1999, the Food and Drug Administration found traces of the chemicals in the blood of all 1,000 volunteers in a nationwide study. Though a small amount of exposure might not harm you, Shanna Swan, the leader of the Rochester study, advises caution. In an e-mail, she wrote: "I would certainly try to avoid anything that smelled like new PVC (the new shower curtain smell), and I would (and have) advise my kids to do the same, particularly when pregnant or considering pregnancy."

To reduce your phthalate exposure, look for children's toys labeled "PVC free," swap your vinyl shower curtain for a cloth one, switch plastic wrap for wax paper and buy natural cosmetics. More tips: Microwave food in glass or ceramic containers instead of plastic, and avoid buying vinyl blinds, flooring or wallpaper.

-- Eviana Hartman


© 2007 The Washington Post Company