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Phthalates: Small chemicals, big side effects

I was driving home recently with my car’s radio tuned to WLIW, and I was listening to Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb interview with Dr. Leonardo Trasande, director of NYU Langone’s Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards and a leader in children’s environmental health, about the recent publication of a study for which he was the lead researcher.  Bobby and Dr. Trasande were speaking about phthalates, exposure to them, and how they are a threat to all of us, yet hidden in plain sight.  Even after I arrived home and pulled into the driveway I sat paralyzed in my car, transfixed by what I was hearing. 

Now what are phthalates and why should we care?  


Phthalates, often called plasticizers, are a group of chemicals, usually found in plastics and gel-like products, that you and I use everyday and can act like hormones in the body. What is frightening is that exposure to these chemicals seems to be unavoidable due to the vast number of products that use phthalates- products such as food packaging, personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, perfume), vinyl flooring, detergents, and lubricating oils to name a few examples of the hundreds of consumer products that contain the these chemicals.

Still sitting in my driveway with the radio on, I listened carefully as they listed the health problems associated with phthalates. These problems include obesity, cancer, asthma, and heart problems. Although the health effects of these chemicals aren’t easy to quantify, Dr. Trasande’s new study makes a compelling case about how phthalates may contribute to early death for people in middle age.  They are also dangerous to fetuses and young children who are susceptible to hormone disruption during development.  


“Our research suggests that the toll of this chemical on society is much greater than we first thought,” says Dr. Trasande. “The evidence is undeniably clear that limiting exposure to toxic phthalates can help safeguard Americans’ physical and financial wellbeing.”


So what do we do about it?  In August 2021, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)  introduced the Preventing Harmful Exposure to Phthalates Act, a bill to prevent phthalates from contaminating the U.S. food supply by removing them from any packaging that may touch food items, and replacing them with other safer substances.  Representatives Ted Lieu and Katie Porter (both D-CA) introduced the companion bill in the House the next day.  This is one step, following the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s 2017 limited ban on several specific phthalates, that will lead to a safer America.  


Supporting bills like these are the first step towards removing people’s exposure to these harmful chemicals.  Phthalates may seem like a small thing to get worked up about, but the pervasive nature of phthalates should concern all of us.  As a father of 3 children, a middle school teacher, and an adjunct professor, I’m concerned because I don’t think a few ad hoc limitations are enough, and I am convinced that we need to limit the use of Phthalates in all consumer products. To continue the work that is already being done in limiting our children’s exposure to phthalates, I plan to advocate removing all phthalates from our nation’s public schools. 


Phthalates may seem like a boring topic of discussion, but their effects are anything but.  I’m a believer in science and a believer in that it is our representatives’ duty to listen to the experts, and to take deliberative action to protect our nation’s children. For these reasons, as a Member of Congress I will advocate for the use of safer alternatives that have already been identified, and for federal funding into research for developing additional alternatives to phthalates that don’t pose a threat to our well-being. 


Journal reference:

Trasande, L., et al. (2021) Phthalates and attributable mortality: A population-based longitudinal cohort study and cost analysis. Environmental Pollution. doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2021.118021.

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