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Eileen Conneely, M.P.H., J.D.

High Phthalates Make a Wide Variety of Products Possible

Phthalates are widely used, and yet actual exposure levels are hundreds or thousands of times below levels of concern established by regulatory authorities.

With a wide range of physical and chemical properties, phthalates are used in a multitude of consumer and industrial products that demand high performance, long-lasting wear and durability. They can be found in a range of everyday items consumers depend on to function properly, including: electrical cables, automobile interiors, flexible hoses, flooring, wall coverings, coated textiles, luggage, sports equipment, roofing membranes, pool liners and footwear.

While they can be employed in a variety of applications, phthalates are not necessarily interchangeable. The characteristics of an individual phthalate often make it well suited to a particular product, allowing manufacturers to meet unique requirements for its use (function and safety specifications), appearance (texture, color, size and shape), and durability and wear.

Automotive Applications

Interiors, vinyl seat covers and interior trim in automobiles use high phthalates because of their ability to withstand high temperatures and their effectiveness in making these products more resistant to degradation. PVC coatings and components in cars help prevent corrosion from water and weather elements. Flexible vinyl is also used in cars and trucks to make them lighter and more fuel efficient.

Building & Construction

Flexible vinyl products made with high phthalates can help reduce a building’s environmental footprint. Phthalates are widely used, and even if the highest possible exposure from phthalates in building products is assumed, because of unique properties of high phthalates, the predicted exposure levels are hundreds or thousands of times below any level of concern established by regulatory authorities, even for sensitive subpopulations like children and pregnant women.

The U.S. Green Business Council (USGBC) has spent years studying the environmental impacts of vinyl building products. Their findings, released in February 2007, concluded that vinyl generally has no greater environmental impact than other building products – and in some cases has less impact. Despite this past conclusion, USGBC recently added a pilot credit to the library for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program that would encourage building designers to avoid the use of products containing phthalates. The pilot credit represents a significant departure from USGBC’s historic focus on improving performance through a building’s entire life cycle. USGBC has not determined that exposure to extremely low levels of phthalates from their use in building products presents a health concern, however, nor has it evaluated the safety and performance of building products that don’t contain phthalates.

Food Containers

Some reports claim phthalates are associated with an increase in blood pressure or insulin resistance in some adolescents, and tell people to avoid microwaving plastic containers and use recycling symbols as a way to avoid phthalates. These studies and the claims are extremely misleading because:

  • Phthalates are among the most thoroughly studied family of chemicals, and government regulatory bodies support the safety of phthalates such as DINP and DIDP in all existing food contact uses.
  • Food packaging is reviewed for safety by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and its stringent safety review is done before new materials are allowed on the market.
  • Most plastic food packaging and storage items are made with other types of plastics and do not require softening agents like phthalates.