Phthalates in Common Household Items Are Especially Dangerous for Women and Children of Color

But replacing them might not be as easy as previously thought

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from Future Human exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

A group of public health and environmental researchers from across the United States are calling for reforms in how we regulate a group of chemical compounds that are harmful to women and children.

In a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health in February, the group recommended policies that they hope will eliminate the use of the chemicals in consumer products.

Ortho-phthalates, the chemical group in question, are neurotoxins that have been linked to learning, attention, and behavioral disorders in children. They are used in a variety of consumer products, including food packaging, toys, medical supplies, personal hygiene products, and cosmetics.

Phthalates, as the group is often abbreviated, can be used to make plastic and made into a solvent in liquids like perfume. Pregnant women may face the greatest harm from these chemicals according to the nonprofit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families because of the links between prenatal exposure and developmental problems in infants and children.

But these exposures aren’t equally felt. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that women of color have far more exposure to phthalates that come from beauty products than white women. Women of color, the study says, are more likely to use products like skin lighteners, hair straighteners, and feminine hygiene products that contain the chemical. Because of this, researchers from the February study urged policymakers to pay specific attention to reducing exposure to phthalates in communities of color. They consider the use of the chemical represents just another environmental injustice — like oil and gas wells being drilled in Latinx communities or spilling oil into water near Black and Latinx communities.

“There is no compelling rationale to continue waiting for more evidence when phthalates can be eliminated from most uses.”

Stephanie Engel, PhD, lead author of the study and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health, said in a press release that this research is just the latest in a deep body of evidence finding links between phthalate exposure and children’s brain development. The researchers are calling for an immediate ban on phthalates and for companies to look for alternatives to the use of the chemical. The group praised the fast-casual food chain Panera Bread for replacing vinyl gloves for its workers, which contain phthalates, with polyethylene gloves, which don’t. Polyethylene isn’t a cure for all products that contain phthalates, and more research needs to be done for other alternatives for other consumer products.

“There is no compelling rationale to continue waiting for more evidence when phthalates can be eliminated from most uses,” Engel said.

Despite that, phthalates are in many consumer products that we encounter in our everyday lives, such as PVC piping, vinyl flooring, agricultural equipment, makeup, and children’s toys. Engel and her team are calling for major policy reforms to eliminate the harmful chemical from all consumer products.

“Due to ubiquitous use of phthalates, people are exposed to mixtures of these chemicals simultaneously. The policy reforms we are recommending would eliminate phthalates as a class from this vast array of exposure sources,” Robin M. Whyatt, PhD, professor emeritus at Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health and a co-author of the study, said. “We believe this goal is entirely feasible as certain manufacturers have already removed phthalates from multiple products in each exposure category.”

In the paper, the researchers called on federal and state regulators to ban the use of phthalates in food packaging, medical supplies and medication, and personal care products.

“We strongly urge both federal and state agencies to move rapidly to eliminate phthalate use. Specific attention should be focused on reducing exposures among socially vulnerable populations such as communities of color, who frequently experience higher exposures,” the researchers said in the paper.

In addition to urging lawmakers to regulate phthalates, the researchers urged action on what they call “regrettable substitution.” They urged corporations to exercise caution when seeking out a replacement for ortho-phthalates so as to not replace one dangerous chemical compound for another.

This is exactly what happened in the case of bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), which was found in 2007 to be a neurotoxin. Corporations replaced DEHP with another phthalate, di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP), only for scientists to find a correlation between the replacement compound and male genital birth defects and negative reproductive health in males.

“The substitution of safer alternatives for phthalates is critical given the risk these chemicals pose to child brain development,” the researchers wrote.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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