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  • Writer's pictureAnita Hollerer-Squire

Phthalates - what are they?

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

We can't see them, we can't smell them and we can't taste them - but phthalates are everywhere and are a considerable risk to our health. A report by Massey University showed that all the people who took part in the study had high levels of phthalates in their bodies. The levels in children were even higher than in those measured in adults.

What are phthalates?

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastic more flexible. They have made their way into pretty much everything and are very hard to avoid. The table below lists all the different phthalates.

Phthalates are used in many consumer products, including:

  • Cosmetics

  • Perfume

  • Fragrances

  • Personal care products (deodorants, hair care, body wash, body lotion, nail polish etc)

  • Insect repellents

  • Air fresheners

  • Plastics

  • Vinyls

  • Plastic toys

  • PVC shower curtains

  • Blinds

  • Wallpaper

  • Vinyl flooring

  • Wood finishes

  • Raincoats

  • Household cleaners

  • Adhesives

  • Lubricants

  • Solvents

  • Plastic pipes

  • Medical equipment and devices

  • Cars (Dashboard, steering wheel ... )

  • Food packaging and wraps

  • Food (especially meat, dairy food and fast food)

Your exposure to phthalates will be higher if you work in printing, painting or plastic processing.

Phthalates in food

Food is a significant exposure pathway to phthalates. Food monitoring studies consistently observed high DEHP concentrations in poultry, cooking oils and cream-based dairy products.

Diethyl phthalate (DEP) levels were found at low concentrations across all food groups.

Milk, yogurt, eggs, fruits, vegetables, pasta, noodles, rice, beverages and water were found to contain low concentrations of phthalates as a whole.

Phthalates can migrate into food from plasticized PVC materials such as tubing typically used in the milking process, lid gaskets, food-packaging films, gloves used in the preparation of foods, and conveyor belts .

Even milk packaged in glass may have passed through plastic tubes on its way from the cow to the bottle, taking DEHP along with it. “Milking machines use a lot of plastic and DEHP is free and very lipophilic (fat soluble), and milk is full of lipids, so it just pulls the DEHP out of the plastic tubing and into the milk,” explains Robin Whyatt, professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia University Medical Center and the lead author on several landmark phthalate studies. “So my guess would be that milk is a pretty important source of dietary exposure to DEHP.”

A NZ Food Safety report from May this year tested 60 dairy samples for a range of phthalates in milk, butter, cheese, cream, milk powders and other dairy products. Phthalates (DEHP) were detected in 7 of the 60 samples.

Another study from 2013 compared the phthalate levels of two groups, one eating a regular diet but armed with a handout of recommendations for ways to reduce BPA and phthalate exposure in their diet, and the other eating a catered diet consisting solely of local, organic fare, none of which had touched plastic packaging. It found that DEHP levels in the local, organic group jumped 2,377% over the course of the experiment. To find out what caused this surprising fact, the researchers tested all the foods consumed by the group and found high levels of the phthalate in dairy products and various organic, imported spices.

How do phthalates affect us?

Phthalates are linked to asthma, breast cancer and obesity. There is also a strong link to diabetes and heart disease. Furthermore it can cause reproductive damage and ADHD.

How can we minimize our exposure?

  • Avoid plastics products wherever possible. Plastic codes 3, 6 and 7 may contain phthalates or BPA - stay clear of those. (Codes 1, 2, 4 and 5 are somewhat safer).

  • Avoid conventional deodorants, nail polishes, cosmetics, perfumes and sprays and any products that list "fragrance" on the label.

  • Don't buy food packed in plastic.

  • Limit dairy and meat consumption (studies show that they have high phthalates)

  • Avoid fast food (fast food containers can be a source of phthalates exposure)


2013 Study:



NZ Food Safety report:

The National Center for Biotechnology Information

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