This is a guest post by Brooke Bunce.
Phthalates (pronounced thal-eights) aren't a new type of antioxidant-packed ancient grain. They're actually hazardous chemical compounds that exist in food, packaging, cosmetics, personal care products, containers, and more, which is why we should be watching out for them around every corner. Primarily, they're used to soften plastics and create lubricants in hygienic products, and there are a slew of different types of phthalates. Since they're so ubiquitous (especially in our food)—and continuously released into surrounding materials—phthalates are even harder to avoid than most chemicals.
So why the worry? Aside from ingesting and inhaling an unknown toxin, many studies have shown phthalates to be endocrine disruptors, which means that they can seriously mess with normal hormone production. Registered dietician Natalia Stasenko, of Tribeca Nutrition in New York City, notes that phthalates can target the reproductive systems of boys, reduce levels of testosterone, and even cause allergies and asthma. They've also been linked to diabetes, excessive weight gain, and premature births.
When phthalates were found to be in many toys and teethers, parents and doctors pushed back through protest, and the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 removed multiple toxins from toy production. Unfortunately, a new study from the journal Environmental Health found that infants still ingest twice the recommended amount of chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. Considering all the other precautions we take to keep our kids safe, this figure is quite unsettling.
High fat foods such as cream, full fat cheese, cooking oils, meats and poultry are partly to blame for increased phthalate ingestion, Stasenko says. But why are high fat foods more prone to phthalate contamination? No one's quite sure, but it's speculated that fat molecules are much easier for phthalates to latch onto. The Washington Post points out that plastic packaging and plastic tubing used to milk cows may be the culprit for high concentrations in dairy and meat products.
Despite these disheartening figures, there are still steps that parents can take to reduce the intake of phthalates. Even small changes can make a huge impact when it comes to kids' health. Stasenko and other experts suggest the following:
- Stay away from toys made before February 2009, or any toy marked with a "3" inside the recycling symbol. Look for alternatives to plastic toys, such as wool, wood, or cotton.
- When reheating food, cover it in a paper towel instead of plastic wrap (especially wrap that's marked with "N3").
- Reheat leftovers in glass, ceramic, or stainless steel instead of plastic containers. Likewise, avoid putting hot foods in plastic containers.
- Reduce plastic as much as possible in your kitchen—within reason. Try to use silicone or stainless steel instead for kid-friendly items like sippy cups or snack containers.
- Reduce the use of personal care products that have "fragrance" in the ingredients, as this can be a catchall for numerous chemicals, including phthalates.
- Try to get electronic receipts whenever possible, since they're made with paper that contains phthalates. Or, wash your hands after handling receipts.
- Switch to low fat dairy products. Note: low fat dairy is not appropriate for children under 2 year of age due to their unique calorie and nutritional needs.
Organic produce, dairy, and meat are also a safer bet when it comes to avoiding chemicals, since phthalates can be found in many pesticides. If you're ever unsure, there are a bounty of resources that can help decode what's in the products and food you buy, such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group.