- What are phthalates, and how do they affect children?
- Does that rubber duckie endanger your child?
- While much remains unknown, regulators have ordered the removal of these chemicals from kids’ toys
When you have young children, the world seems full of potential hazards. These include unsafe substances, such as flakes of lead paint, in your child’s environment.
But many substances fall into a gray area in terms of their effects on children’s health. Among these are phthalates -- chemical compounds that are widely used to make plastics more pliable. In a toy rubber duck, for example, they may be used to make the material softer and more flexible. They also have been used historically in sippy cups and other products aimed at children.
Regulators ordered the removal of many kinds of phthalates from children’s toys and other products (PDF) after the chemicals were found to damage the health of some lab animals. While no cases of humans being hurt by phthalates are known, apart from some small studies overseas, more research is needed, says Dr. Elizabeth Meade, Chief of Pediatrics at Swedish who tweets as @EMeadeMD.
“We don’t have great data,” says Dr. Meade. “Several phthalates have been removed from children’s toys and people have become more aware of them.”
In some trials with lab animals, phthalates were found to disrupt the endocrine system, particularly affecting the reproductive system. Some of the chemicals were banned by Congress from use in children’s products because of concern about how they may harm children.
“Kids are more vulnerable because of their small size,” says Dr. Meade. “Our greatest wish is that we could protect kids from every kind of exposure.”
Phthalates are used in a wide array of products, from shampoo to the coating on electrical wires. But you can reduce your exposure to them.
Bodies such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggest parents avoid giving children anything made of vinyl. For adults, the EWG recommends avoiding products that tout their fragrance. Many of these fragrance-enhanced products include Diethyl phthalate.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists scores of consumer products that contain phthalates, from Johnson’s baby shampoo to Hot Topic nail polish.
Recently, we discussed the presence of phthalates in deodorants, and asked whether alternative products would be healthier. And we asked a similar question about home air fresheners.
Dr. Meade offers another tip for avoiding phthalates: Don’t heat or microwave plastic containers of food. “As the temperature heats up, chemicals leach out,” she says.
Waiting for research
One of the reasons that regulators and health officials are so cautious about children’s exposure to phthalates is that we still don’t know how toxic they are. Sometimes, we don’t know about the health effects of a material until the body has been exposed to it for a long time, and toxins have accumulated.
“There is a reason there is a lot of regulation,” says Dr. Meade. “It’s important to understand how these substances affect people’s health.”
To find a Swedish pediatrician near you, call 1-800-SWEDISH (1-800-793-3474) or search our online physician directory.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.