Human beings’ exposure to chemicals in everything from toys to household cleaning products to food has long been a concern. Fortunately, according to research from George Washington University’s School of Public Health, that exposure has been declining in recent years, as governments around the world have been instituting laws banning the use of many types of chemicals in products that are used and consumed by millions of people.1
However, the findings in the research weren’t all positive. As bans on chemicals that were previously found harmful have increased, companies have been developing new versions that often have many of the same side effects as the products that have been prohibited. The report, published in the Jan. 15 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, shows how the issue of limiting human exposure to dangerous chemicals has become a kind of cat-and-mouse game between governments and chemical companies all across the globe.
Reduction of phthalates headlines study’s findings
Phthalates are chemicals that make plastic more pliable, and they are also key ingredients in beauty products and building materials. Not long ago, scientists began to discover that phthalates can cause birth defects, hormonal development issues and other health problems in human beings, especially in children. Since that information became public knowledge, governments have been working to pass restrictions on their use.
The good news is that it appears the bans on specific phthalates have worked. In 2009, the U.S. Congress voted to prohibit certain phthalates from being used in products that children are exposed to due to the potentially harmful effects the chemicals can have on hormonal development. So far, it appears that ban has been making a positive impact.
“Exposure to three of the phthalates that have been banned in children’s toys has decreased over 10 years,” lead researcher Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services, said in a statement.2
Both in terms of awareness and action, the battle to limit or eliminate human exposure to phthalates appears to have taken a major step forward. But other aspects of the study’s findings painted a much less optimistic picture.
New phthalates replaces banned versions
It appears that instead of coming up with safer alternatives to the phthalates that have been banned in the U.S. and other countries around the world, many chemical companies have simply developed different versions that may be just as harmful as the ones they are replacing. While these new phthalates have only undergone animal testing, early indications are that they are just as harmful to humans as the banned versions.
“We need to do a better job of understanding the health and safety ramifications of chemicals before they’re used in a widespread manner,” Zota added in the statement.
Exposure levels to some of the newer phthalates, as well as a couple of the older, banned ones, has risen significantly in recent years. Exposure levels for DnOP, DiDP and DiNP, which are newer, have risen between 15 and 25 percent in the past few years.3
Possible side effects of phthalate exposure
Phthalates have been attached to a number of different health problems, including hormone disruption, diabetes, asthma, attention deficit disorder, altered male genitalia development, obesity and even cancer.4 Not surprisingly, the U.S. Congress, European Union and, increasingly, individual states, have been passing bans on phthalates for several years now.
The chemical industry denies that phthalates have the kind of effects many scientists have associated with them, asserting that exposure levels aren’t high enough to have a noticeable impact.
“Despite the fact that phthalates are used in many products, exposure is extremely low – much lower than the levels considered safe by regulatory agencies,” Liz Bowman, a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, which represents manufacturers of phthalates and other chemicals, said in a statement.
How health professionals can deal with phthalates
As public awareness of the possibly harmful effects of phthalates has increased, health professionals have become the go-to source for information, especially for parents who are looking to keep their children from being exposed to the chemicals.
For those who work in the health care industry, or who are considering working in the field, learning how to advise people on limiting their phthalate exposure could become an important part of their job. Whether you’re a physician, certified medical assistant or pharmacy technician, you could find yourself on the frontlines of the battle to help people avoid exposure to phthalates, thus improving their overall health outcomes.
Phthalates have mostly been removed from children’s toys, according to the Toy Industry Association. But they are still used in many other products and, to be safe, parents are advised to keep their children away from plastics as much as possible.
1 Lees, Kathleen, “Chemical Bans Reduce Risk of Human Exposure,” Science World Report, Jan. 16, 2014. http://www.scienceworldreport.com/articles/12211/20140116/chemical-bans-reduce-risk-of-human-exposure.htm
2 Cheng, Cheri, “Bans on Chemicals Effectively Reduce Human Exposure,” Counsel & Heal, Jan. 16, 2014. http://www.counselheal.com/articles/8305/20140116/bans-on-chemicals-effectively-reduce-human-exposure.htm
3 Reinberg, Steven, “Ban on Chemicals Lowers Human Exposures, Study Finds,” WebMD, Jan. 15, 2014. http://www.webmd.com/news/20140115/ban-on-class-of-chemicals-lowers-human-exposures-study-finds
4 Konkel, Lindsey, “Good News/Bad news: Some Phthalates Down, Some Up,” Environmental Health News, Jan. 15, 2014. http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2014/jan/phthalate-trends