Phthalates are a family of chemicals, a type of esters used in a great majority of plastic products to increase product flexibility. The problem with phthalates is that they can be absorbed by the body through inhalation, skin absorption, and ingestion and this exposure is believed to result in adverse health outcomes.
The majority of human exposure to phthalates is through food as found through several studies. As far as cancer is concerned, studies have not yet found any proof that phthalates cause cancer in any way. Despite this, many people try to limit their exposure to phthalates just to play it safe.
Phthalates are a ubiquitous group of chemicals found in a great number of products, from food packaging to cosmetics. They are mainly used to make plastic more flexible, to coat pills, to make cosmetic products last longer, but essentially, they are present in almost every household item.
Chemically, phthalates are esters of phthalic acid. Products containing phthalates will have the exact type of phthalate listed in the product packaging and the name usually ends in “phthalate” (Ditridecyl phthalate, Diisohexyl phthalate, Diallyl phthalate, etc.).
Most people have some degree of phthalates in their body as shown in a study published two years ago in Environmental Health Perspectives. The study found that 98% of the US population had metabolites of phthalates in their urine.
Studies on Phthalates
Both animal and human studies were conducted to see whether phthalates are harmful to human health. Studies on mice have shown that phthalate exposures resulted in developmental and reproductive problems.
For this reason, several studies have examined if the same would true for humans. A systematic review published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health found that most studies on this topic show that phthalate concentration was highest in children and that it decreases with age.
Furthermore, the review found that most phthalate exposure was through food. The review also found that some population groups have an above-average level of phthalates in their body. Unfortunately, the studies conducted have not found any solid evidence if phthalates cause reproductive and developmental problems in humans.
What Current Research Says
The latest study on phthalates published in the October 2016 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives found that those eating a lot of fast food had greater concentrations of phthalates in their body compared to the rest of the population.
Considering that one-third of the US population are believed to consume fast food regularly, this can be a major reason for concern because we don’t know yet if phthalates are completely safe.
Furthermore, a study published in a 2013 issue of Current Opinion in Pediatrics found that phthalate exposure increased a child’s risk of developing allergies including asthma and eczema. Unfortunately, most studies fail to provide any causal link and we’ll have to wait for future studies to provide definitive answers.
Phthalates and Cancer
Now, since phthalates are universally present in many products and because they are recognized as potential endocrine disruptors, we have to wonder if they play a role in cancer.
A recent study published in Climacteric suggested that phthalates can induce proliferation in breast cancer cells. An earlier study published in Environmental Health Perspective found that some phthalates were associated with an increased risk of breast cancer while others not as much.
These findings seem to be strange and no definite conclusion can be drawn from them yet. A very recent study published in Environment international even found that consuming flavonoids lowered the risk of breast cancer in those with high concentrations of phthalates in their urine. This study suggests that plant antioxidants can help scavenge these toxic substances.
Authorities have expressed concern regarding phthalates in the US and e Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 prohibits the sale of products containing phthalate beyond a certain threshold.
In Europe, phthalates are prohibited in cosmetics and other personal care products. Considering that the studies on phthalates are still inconclusive regarding their effect on human health, we should be cautious about exposure to these probably toxic chemicals.
However, on the bright side, the human body removes phthalates pretty quickly through urine so our exposure to these chemicals is probably not too dangerous. Furthermore, studies show that most people have low levels of phthalates in their body which are far below the toxic threshold.
Nevertheless, limiting your use of plastic, vinyl, and other synthetic products are bound to help you reduce your exposure to phthalates.
Phthalates are a major cause of concern among people at high risk of cancer due to their potentially toxic effect. However, it is very hard to avoid exposure to these chemicals in our modern plastic environment. Luckily, there are no studies proving that phthalates cause cancer at the concentrations that they are usually found in the human body.
Since most phthalate exposure is through food, a good way to reduce phthalate exposure is by limiting your intake of highly processed and prepackaged foods.