Toxic Talk and Labels

Phthalates Linked with Childhood Asthma, and Many Other Health Problems

+ Pamela Friedman

Phthalates cause health problems. The evidence continues to come in. Here’s the latest: a study from the University of Columbia reports that exposure to phthalates in personal care products and plastic packaging increases a child’s risk of getting asthma.

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates are a family of chemicals that alter the characteristics of certain products. Some make hard plastic flexible, for products like shower curtains, vinyl tile, children’s toys, and artificial leather. Others are used in personal care products, like nail polish, for instance, to help resist chipping, or in fragrances to help the scent last longer.

The studies linking phthalates to health problems are numerous, however. Here are just a few:

  • Developmental problems. A study published in 2011 examining more than 700 mothers found that as the levels of phthalates in mothers’ urine went up, the child’s motor development skills went down. Three of the phthalates were associated with behavioral problems, including depression, emotionally reactive behaviors, and withdrawn behavior. “Our findings are concerning,” said Robin Whyatt, lead author of the study, “because we saw a two to three fold increase in the odds that the child would have motor delays and or behavioral problems.”
  • Altered brain development. A University of Rochester Medical Center study of 145 preschool children reports that when concentrations of two common phthalates in mothers’ prenatal urine are elevated, their sons are less likely to play with male-typical toys and games, such as trucks and play fighting. Researchers expressed concern that fetal exposure to phthalates has the potential to alter masculine brain development.
  • Genital development problems. A study published in 2005 found a link between a mother’s exposure to phthalates during pregnancy and changes in the way the baby boy’s genitals developed.
  • Diabetes: A 2012 study showed an association between increased concentrations of phthalates in the body and an increased risk of diabetes in women.
  • Lowered IQ: A study of 667 third- and fourth-graders reported that as the amount of a certain phthalate, DEHP, increased in urine, the child’s IQ fell a small amount.
  • Thyroid problems: A study published in 2011 established a connection between several common phthalates and measurements of thyroid hormones. The more phthalates in the urine, the lower the levels of thyroid hormone.
  • Infertility: A study published in 2012 found that infertile couples are exposed to 3-5 times higher levels of phthalates compared to fertile couples.

A Real Concern

Now, the new study form the University of Columbia links phthalate exposure to asthma in children. After examining 244 children, researchers found that those with higher levels of phthalates in their urine had higher levels in nitric oxide in tested breath inhalations, which is a biological marker of airway inflammation and often a precursor to asthma.

Oh, and by the way, the researchers found phthalates in the urine of all the children studied.

In fact, most likely, all of us are carrying around phthalates in our bodies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers have found measurable levels of many phthalate metabolites in the general population. The finding indicates that phthalate exposure is widespread in the population.

Researchers also found that adult women have higher levels of urinary metabolites than men for those phthalates that are used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and similar personal care products.

That doesn’t mean that we should give up, though! We can limit our exposure to these dangerous toxins with just a few changes:

  • Read labels and avoid any ingredient that has the word “phthalate” in it, including mono-methyl phthalates. Abbreviations include MMP, MEP, MiBP, DMP, DEP, and DiBP.
  • Avoid products with “fragrance” on the label as they may contain phthalates.
  • Buy from conscientious companies that care about safe ingredients.
  • Avoid vinyl, and choose hemp shower curtains and linoleum flooring.
  • Choose phthalate-free nail polishes.
  • Avoid air fresheners and chemically scented candles. Open the window or try soy or beeswax candles.
  • Don’t inhale your hairspray-better yet, choose phthalate-free brands.

How do you avoid phthalates?

Picture courtesy Brianna.iehman via


Rebecca Williams, “Study: Phthalates Affect Child Development,” The Environment Report, September 6, 2011,

“Pilot Study Relates Phthalate Exposure to Less-Masculine Play by Boys,” University of Rochester Medical Center, November 16, 2009,

Swan, SH, et al., Decrease in Anogenital Distance Among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives 113: 1056-1061,

Janet Raloff, “Study reports hints of phthalate threat to boys’ IQs,” Science News, April 5, 2010,’_IQs.

Mary Shomon, “Study Links Chemical Phthalates in Plastics to Thyroid Irregularities,”, July 12, 2011,

Renee Gardner, “Infertile couples have higher exposure to phthalates,” Environmental Health News, February 22, 2012,

Simon Pitman, “Study links phthalates to elevated asthma risk in children,” Cosmetic Design, September 11, 2012,

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