Phthalates (pronounced THA-lates) are a group of chemicals that can make products (usually plastics) softer and more flexible. They are sometimes called plasticizers, but many other chemicals are also called plasticizers.
How you’re exposed to phthalates
You can be exposed to phthalates by using products that have them. Phthalates aren’t chemically connected with the plastic products that contain them, which means they can leach out of the products.
The average Canadian is exposed to fairly low levels of phthalates. People can be exposed to higher levels of phthalates during medical procedures if the medical tubing and other devices are made with PVC plastics. Children can be exposed to phthalates by sucking on toys made of plastics that contain phthalates.
Phthalates and cancer
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) as a possible cause of cancer. The US National Toxicology Program (NTP) says that DEHP “is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”. Find out more about how cancer-causing substances are classified.
DEHP is a commonly used and studied type of phthalate, found in vinyl products and many medical plastics such as IV bags and tubes. Diisononyl phthalate (DINP) is another commonly used phthalate, which is also found in many vinyl products like wire and cable, flooring, toys and garden hoses.
Some studies show that DEHP causes liver tumours and fertility problems in rats and mice. Several studies have also shown that the more animals were exposed to DINP, the more likely they were to develop tumours. There is also evidence that certain phthalates act as endocrine disruptors. This means they may mimic or behave like certain hormones and can interfere with the normal hormonal activity in our bodies. This can lead to physical abnormalities, fertility problems and certain types of cancer.
More research is needed to know if phthalates affect people in the same way that they affect animals. To cause these abnormalities in lab animals, exposure to phthalates such as DEHP and DINP needs to be relatively high. Most Canadians are not exposed to these levels. These substances also seem to have greater effects on young and developing animals.
In 2013, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment added DINP to their list of chemicals known to cause cancer. IARC and NTP have not classified DINP as a carcinogen.
Tips to reduce your exposure to phthalates
Talk to your healthcare team
Ask your healthcare teams if it’s possible to use phthalate-free (non-PVC) tubing and IV bags. This is especially important if you have procedures such as blood transfusions or dialysis, if you’re pregnant or if the procedure is for an infant or young child. It may not always be possible to use non-PVC equipment, especially in an emergency situation. Equipment with PVC plastics may be used to save your life.
Check your children’s toys and supplies
Health Canada currently restricts the levels of DEHP, dibutylphthalate (DBP) and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP) allowed in children’s toys and products. They also restrict the levels of DINP, diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP) and di-n-octyl phthalate (DNOP) allowed in children’s toys and products if they are likely to be placed in a child’s mouth.
If you are not sure if a product contains phthalates, ask the manufacturer.
Check your food containers
Some foods may have low levels of phthalates because they are used in the plastics used to prepare and package the food. You can try to use glass storage containers, or soft plastics, like plastic wrap, made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE).
Check your cosmetics and personal care products
In Canada, all cosmetic products (for example, makeup, hairspray, body lotion) should be labelled with their ingredients. You can check the ingredients to see if these products have phthalates. Look for the phthalate’s full name. For example, check the ingredients list for dibutyl phthalate and diethyl phthalate.
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