Risky Convenience

Tuesday, March 31, 2015Melissa Cooper Sargent

Plastic is handy.  It’s lightweight, doesn’t break easily, is water-proof, comes in attractive colors, and can be molded to any shape. But, what does this convenience cost us?

Multiple health concerns in children, including male birth defects, asthma, and behavioral deficits are attributed to a group of common plastic additives: phthalates (pronounced thal-ātes). Phthalates serve to make vinyl (PVC) flexible.  They also occur in artificial fragrances, such as perfume and air fresheners.

These harmful additives, however, are not needed.  Indeed, after a four-year phase-out period ended in February, the European Union banned—from all products—six of the most harmful phthalates. Europe’s REACH regulators consider these phthalates “Substances of Very High Concern”.

The U.S. also recognizes phthalates as hazardous, banning three of them (DBP, DEHP, BBP) in children’s toys and certain child care articles in 2009.  Three other phthalates (DINP, DnOP, DIDP) were banned temporarily for products children put in their mouths, as well as child care articles. But, many household goods, cosmetics (perfume and nail polish), and cleaners (air fresheners, “plug-ins”, etc.)—to which children are exposed regularly—still contain phthalates. 

The health effects are not exclusive to children. Phthalates are linked to reduced testosterone levels, increased pregnancy losses, and increased breast cancer risk in adults.

The Ecology Center tests everyday items for harmful chemicals through its HealthyStuff program. Last year, dangerous phthalate levels were found in vinyl 3-ring binders, shower curtains, and i-Pod chargers from Walgreens. In February, a new dollar store report revealed high levels of phthalates in vinyl floor runners, silly straws, pencil pouches, and bathtub appliqués. And now, HealthyStuff just wrapped up phthalates testing of vinyl floor tiles from several popular retailers. Results.

Concerned consumers should minimize their use of vinyl (recycling #3) whenever possible. Choose natural materials, like washable cloth shower curtains, cardboard binders, cotton or jute floor runners, and use natural fragrances for home and body. (Remember baking soda and vinegar absorb odors in the home; rather than cover them up. Cleaning recipes).

Avoid vinyl in all child care products, even if they are free of the six phthalates restricted by federal law. Manufacturers have begun to use a variety of different chemicals as alternative plasticizers in vinyl. Some of which have properties similar to those of phthalates; yet the health effects of which are not well studied. sleeping baby image

Items of special concern are surfaces where babies and children sleep (nap mats, playpens, changing pads, vinyl mattresses, water-proof mattress covers).  Heat, including body heat, increases the off-gassing of plasticizer chemicals.  A new study published in Environmental Science & Technology reveals that the breathing zone of a warm infant sleeping on a vinyl crib mattress cover can have four times the amount of plasticizer chemicals.

Concerned? Want to take action? Ask our Senators for real reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, to protect the health of Americans just as Europe protects its citizens. After all, toxic for one, toxic for all.

Published on March 31, 2015