Phthalates are a family of chemicals used in plastics and many other products.
What are phthalates?
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl. Polyvinyl chloride is made softer and more flexible by the addition of phthalates. Phthalates are used in hundreds of consumer products.
Phthalates are used in cosmetics and personal care products, including perfume, hair spray, soap, shampoo, nail polish, and skin moisturizers. They are used in consumer products such as flexible plastic and vinyl toys, shower curtains, wallpaper, vinyl miniblinds, food packaging, and plastic wrap.
Phthalates are also used in wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, medical tubing and fluid bags, solvents, insecticides, medical devices, building materials, and vinyl flooring.
Phthalates had been used to make pacifiers, soft rattles, and teethers, but at the request of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, U.S. manufacturers have not used phthalates in those products since 1999.
You can be exposed to low levels of phthalates through air, water, or food. You can be exposed to phthalates if you use cosmetics, personal care products, cleaning products, or other plastic and vinyl products that contain them.
Exposure to low levels of phthalates may come from eating food packaged in plastic that contains phthalates or breathing dust in rooms with vinyl miniblinds, wallpaper, or recently installed flooring that contain phthalates. You could be exposed by drinking water that contains phthalates, though it is not known how common that is. Phthalates are suspected to be endocrine disruptors.
Children can be exposed to phthalates by chewing on soft vinyl toys or other products made with them. Children can be exposed by breathing household dust that contains phthalates or using IV tubing or other medical devices made with phthalates.
People at the highest risk of exposure to phthalates are dialysis patients, hemophiliacs, or people who received blood transfusions from sources that use tubing or containers made with phthalates. The Food and Drug Administration has recommended steps to minimize exposure of patients to medical devices that contain phthalates and recommended use of alternative devices for certain procedures. Others at high risk are painters, printers, and workers exposed to phthalates during the manufacture, formulation, and processing of plastics.
The human health effects of phthalates are not yet fully known but are being studied by several government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the National Toxicology Program's Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction.
Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate is listed as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" in the Fourteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program because there is limited evidence of a relationship between exposure to the chemical and cancer in humans.
Current levels of seven phthalates studied by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences posed "minimal" concern for causing reproductive effects. However, the National Toxicology Program concluded that high levels of one phthalate, di-n-butyl phthalate, may adversely affect human reproduction or development.
High levels of exposure to di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate through the use of medical tubing and other plastic devices for feeding, medicating, and assisting the breathing of newborn infants may affect the development of the male reproductive system, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.
Check the Kind of Plastics You Use (Mount Sinai Children's Environmental Health Center) (PDF — 1.24 MB)
Cosmetics - Phthalates (Food and Drug Administration)
DEHP in Plastic Medical Devices (Food and Drug Administration)
Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP). ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Di-n-butyl Phthalate. ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Di-n-octylphthalate (DNOP). ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Diethyl Phthalate. ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Phthalate Esters. Haz-Map (National Library of Medicine)
Phthalates and Bisphenol A (Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units) (PDF — 196.10 KB)
Phthalates. Fact Sheet (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
PVC - A Major Source of Phthalates (New Jersey Department of Human Services)
Last Updated: November 21, 2016