Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are widely used to increase the flexibility of plastics in products such as toys, detergents, cosmetics, pesticides, building materials, paints, foods, electrical equipment and textiles.
Increasingly there are being controlled or banned because of the risks they pose to human health.
Other studies have suggested a link with obesity and insulin resistance, a precursor to Type II diabetes.
However, it is unclear just how big the health threat is as the strongest evidence comes from experiments in which animals such as rats were exposed to high concentrations of phthalates.
Phthalates are used primarily to soften polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is one of the most widely used plastics in the world.
Because phthalates only bind only weakly to plastics they readily leak into the air or any food or drink in plastic containers. This process speeds up as the plastics age. People can therefore ingest phthalates in food or, in the case of more volatile phthatlates, they can inhale them directly.
Infants and toddlers are at the greatest risk of exposure as they tend to put objects in their mouths. They are also more vulnerable to health impacts as their bodies are still developing.
Several government agencies, including the US Food and Drug Administration, the Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate and a Health Canada expert panel have warned that certain patients — particularly sick infants — may be at risk of harm from phthalates leaching out of vinyl medical devices such as IV bags and tubing.
Another source of exposure is through handling of electronic waste (e-waste).
A scientific study published in 2009 showed that soils were “severely contaminated” with phthalates in parts of Taizhou city in China where e-waste had been handled and recycled.
Some countries such as the United States and European Union members, have heavily restricted or banned the use of certain phthalates in children’s toys.
Health Care Without Harm is working with hospitals around the world to phase out PVC and phthalates from the health care sector by introducing safer alternatives.
As with any kind of health threat, journalists reporting on phthalates must take care to represent accurately the scale of the threat and the likelihood of harm.
In 2008 the Columbia Journalism Review published an article on the ‘volatile coverage of phthalates‘ in the US media. It provides an excellent analysis and some good tips for journalists who want to avoid making unnecessarily alarming reports.
Also in 2008, the Huffington Post published a similar critique of journalistic coverage of phthalates.
As with all potentially harmful chemicals, any public debate about their safety can become highly polarised between the views of industry and nongovernmental sources.
Journalists need to be able to assess the claims and counter claims that these groups make, and to understand – and report – any underlying reasons they have for making any statements that are not supported by strong science.
Environmental Health News produces a listing of news stories about phthalates, which is a good source of story ideas, background information and organisations to contact.
CASE STUDIES – Phthalates in Indian toys
In January 2010 the Indian nongovernmental organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment, published research that showed many toys on sale in India contained high levels of phthalates.
CSE said that it found phthalates in all 24 toys it tested, and in 45 percent of these, the phthalates exceeded internationally accepted safety limits.
Some of the toys were imports from China, Taiwan and Thailand, while the rest were made in India. Those with the highest levels of phthalates had come from China and Taiwan.
India has only voluntary safety standards and a ban on imports that do not meet those standards ended on 23 January 2010, leaving a regulatory vacuum.
The CSE’s director said the government did not want to regulate imports because that would mean it would have to also regulate India’s domestic industry.
Our Stolen Future – phthalates