The unknown risks of phthalates
Previous studies have found that female factory workers exposed to high levels of phthalates were at higher risk for miscarriage, and the chemicals had also been shown to have negative effects on pregnant lab animals. But this new study is the first to examine phthalates's effects on pregnancy from non-work-related exposure. The researchers looked at more than 300 pregnant women, 132 who had miscarriages and 172 who didn't. "Our study found that the levels of phthalates in the women who underwent miscarriage were statistically significantly higher, and the risk of clinical pregnancy loss was associated with urinary concentration of phthalate metabolites [broken-down phthalates]," study author Jianying Hu of the College of Urban and Environmental Sciences at Peking University in Beijing tellsFit Pregnancy. This doesn't prove that phthalates cause miscarriage, but there is a definite link, so he says further study is needed.
People are exposed to phthalates through ingestion, inhalation and skin contact, Hu says, but scientists still don't know exactly where the greatest risks occur. "Previous research has reported that the main exposure to phthalates for general population is food in various countries, [but] the exposure assessment [was] not well done," he says. "In future study, the contributions from various pathways—air, water, food and dermal contact—to total exposure should be further clarified."
How to steer clear of phthalates
Phthalates are used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break and are approved for uses in food packaging and processing materials that are in contact with food, such as films and plastic bags. "Phthalates can also be used in residential building materials, such as floorings, paints, carpet backings, wallpaper, and in PVC products," Hu says. "They are widely used in personal care products, such as body lotions, gels and shampoo," things pregnant women probably put on their bodies every day. In fact, the CDC says that women have higher levels of phthalates than men, presumably because they use more personal care items.
The U.S. had already banned some kinds of phthalates in toys, but because research hasn't yet proven they cause adverse health effects, many others are still being used elsewhere. "While phthalates have risk, these chemicals provide human benefit. So before banning it, we should do cost-benefit analysis," Hu says. But because of phthalates' unknown risks, Hu says, "We think that it is better to avoid personal care products for pregnant women even from the view of precaution."
How can you figure out where phthalates lurk? Trying to memorize the list of hard-to-pronounce chemicals is almost impossible—and they might not even be required to show up on a label anyway. "Right now people cannot know whether a product has phthalate in it," Hu says. "The method to label 'phthalate-free' in products, as done for BPA, may be a way [to make consumers aware it is safe]." In the meantime, follow these tips:
- Avoid personal care and other products that list "fragrance" or "parfum" in the ingredients—these are most likely phthalates.
- Look for brands that specifically say "phthalate-free" on the label.
- Don't use plastics with the recycling numbers 3 or 7.
- Use glass or stainless steel containers instead of plastic, and don't microwave food in plastic.
- Eat organic when possible, because phthalates may be used in pesticides and pesticide-treated animal feed.
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