Another phthalates study (that’s it! i’m ditching my plastic tupperware)

Tupperware advertisement featuring a Joe Steinmetz photograph, State Library and Archives of Florida

In grad school, a primatologist came to speak at one of my classes and at the end of her talk, she said, “And by the way, avoid plastic water bottles. Phthalates are not safe.” I was skeptical — she wasn’t an endocrinologist or chemist so i narrowed my eyes and dismissed the idea.

When i had a baby, of course, all of a sudden nothing could contain BPA plastic and phthalates were poison. And then this week, I saw, in addition to possibly affecting fertility and metabolism in adults and children, which are the scientific claims thus far, phthalates could also cause allergies/asthma in babies whose mothers were exposed. The study shows that exposed mothers had babies with more allergies, which truthfully may or may not indicate that phthalates are the cause (it could be that mothers exposed to phthalates were also less healthy in general), but the study was also repeated in mice. Mice who were exposed to phthalates had babies with more allergies. Ok, so now you have my attention: what’s the deal with phthalates?

Phthalates are added to plastic to increase its durability — they can be found in water bottles, PVC home flooring, and medical supplies, among other things, and are easily released into the air and absorbed through the skin. The US and Europe regulate the amount of phthalates that manufacturers can use and since 2009 phthalate use has decreased. But, the most major source of phthalates is fatty foods like milk, butter, and meat; fast food has a supremely higher level of phthalates. Food packaging is the culprit, evidently. But, that is regulated, too.

So, is there actually enough phthalate exposure to actually cause health effects? Just because something is toxic in large amounts doesn’t mean it does anything in small amounts (eating fast food every day? probably not.) In 2000, an expert panel at the National Institute for Environmental Safety and Health found that “reproductive risks from exposure to phthalates were minimal to negligible in most cases.” The CDC also confirms that most people’s total exposure from all sources is well below safety standards.

I do trust the FDA and the CDC…but the phrase “in most cases” bothers me. How much exposure do i have? And my kids? My 10 month old baby? If there’s no way to find out, i figure, maybe i can do a few things to limit it and then i can banish the issue from my mind entirely. Focusing on food exposure, my strategy is this: replace my tupperware with glass and avoid the middle of the grocery store. And that’s it. I’ll trust the FDA and CDC with the rest.

Casey Rentz is a science writer whose essays have appeared in New Scientist, Scientific American,, The Guardian, and Best Science Writing Online book series. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two kiddos. Find her at Follow her at Facebook, Twitter.

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