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Phthalates 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.

Phthalates are used in a range of products, including:

  • polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, which is a type of plastic used in products such as shower curtains
  • medical plastics, such as PVC IV bags and tubes
  • children’s toys and supplies
  • cosmetics, such as nail polish and perfumes

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.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies one type of phthalate, diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), as a possible cause of cancer. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) says that DEHP “is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

Another phthalate, diisononyl phthalate (DINP) has been linked to cancer in rats and mice. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment includes DINP on their list of chemicals known to cause cancer. IARC and NTP have not classified DINP as a carcinogen.

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