Health Effects

Hormone disruption; liver and thyroid toxicity; effects on reproduction and behavior; asthma symptoms; obesity.

Found In 

PVC plastic, including shower curtains, flexible tubing, IV bags, purses, older toys, pet toys, food packaging, backpacks, raincoats and clothing embellishments; nail polish; fragranced personal care and cleaning products.

More Details

Phthalates are plasticizers added to a variety of consumer products and used as fragrance binders in personal care products. Ninety percent of phthalates are added to vinyl (PVC) plastic to make it softer and more flexible in products such as shower curtains, purses, pet toys, food packaging, backpacks, raincoats, clothing embellishments and more. One study found that phthalates were the most abundant chemicals in indoor air and house dust.[i] Young children are exposed to phthalates through inhalation, ingestion and even through dermal absorption. A Danish study of 3- to 6-year-olds identified dermal absorption as the primary exposure route for DEP, DnBP and DIBP in the indoor environment.[ii] 

While biomonitoring studies find that urinary levels of some phthalate metabolites (metabolites of DEP, DnBP, BBzP, DEHP) decreased between 17 and 42 percent, others (metabolites of DiBP, DnOP, DiDP, DiNP) increased between 15 and 206 percent between 2001-2002 and 2009-2010.[iii] These findings may indicate that regulation of certain phthalates has decreased use and exposure, but other harmful phthalates are being used as substitutes.  Phthalate exposure remains widespread and an estimated 1% of women of childbearing age with high-end exposures to phthalates may be at risk for adverse effects on their babies, if they become pregnant.[iv]

Phthalates in personal care products could be an important source of exposure for infants who have immature metabolic and immune systems. Use of lotions, powder and shampoo with infants was associated with increased levels of phthalates in urine and was strongest in young infants.[v] Phthalate exposure is linked to adverse effects on the brain. One study found that reductions in child IQ were correlated with higher maternal exposure levels of phthalates in urine during pregnancy.[vi]

Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) is of particular concern, as a hormone disruptor and a possible human carcinogen, affecting the liver.[vii] [viii] The CDC biomonitoring program has identified metabolites of DEHP in nearly everyone tested. Exposure to DEHP is associated with liver and thyroid toxicity, reproductive abnormalities and adverse effects on the respiratory system, including asthma.[ix] There is also emerging evidence that DEHP is an obesogen. Higher urinary phthalate metabolite concentrations in adult males were associated with increased waist circumference and insulin resistance.[x] Children with higher DEHP levels were more likely to have higher body mass index.[xi]

In addition to DEHP, there is evidence of harm to health from numerous phthalates. DBP, DBP, DEP, DMP and DiBP have been variously linked to hormone disruption, infertility and other reproductive problems, tumor formation, breast cancer and early breast development.[xii]  The Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) of the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommended a ban on the following phthalates in children’s products because of health concerns DEHP, DBP, DIBP, BBP, DINP, DCHP, DPENP, DIOP and DHEXP. They noted that “DINP had the maximum potential for exposure to infants, toddlers, and older children” and exposure to DINP was from food, from mouthing teethers and toys, and from dermal contact with child care articles and home furnishings. The CHAP recommends that U.S. agencies “conduct the necessary risk assessments with a view to supporting risk management steps” regarding exposures from food and other products for numerous phthalates.[xiii]


1.          Rudel RA, Dodson RE, Perovich IJ et al. Semi-volatile endocrine-disrupting compounds in paired indoor and outdoor air in two northern California communities. Environ Sci Technol. 2010;44(17):6583-90.

2.          Beko G, Weschler CJ, Langer S et al. Children’s phthalate intakes and resultant cumulative exposures estimated from urine compared with estimates from dust ingestion, inhalation and dermal absorption in their homes and daycare centers. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(4):e62442.

3.          Zota AR, Calafat AM, Woodruff TJ. Temporal trends in phthalate exposures: findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2001-2010. Environ Health Perspectives. 2014;122(3):235-41.

4.          Carlson KR, Szeszel-Fedorowicz W. Estimated Phthalate Exposure and Risk to Women of Reproductive Age as Assessed Using 2013/2014 NHANES Biomonitoring Data. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. February 2017. 

5.          Sathyanarayana S, Karr CJ, Lozano P, Brown E et al. Baby care products: possible sources of infant phthalate exposure. Pediatrics. 2008;121(2):e260-268.

6.          Factor-Livak P, Insel B, Calafat AM, Liu X et al. Persistent associations between maternal prenatal exposure to phthalates on child IQ at age 7 years. PLOSone, December 10, 2014.

7.                      U.S. EPA, Integrated Risk Information System.

8.          CDC

9.          Sathyanarayana S. Phthalates and children’s health, Curr Probl Pediatr Adolesc Health Care. 2008; 38:34-39.

10.      Stalhut RW, van Wijngaarden E, Dye TD, Cook S, Swan S. Concentrations of urinary phthalate metabolites are associated with increased waist circumference and insulin resistance in adult males. Environ Health Perspect. 2007;115(6): 876-882.

11.      Gray BB, Plastics chemical linked to obesity in kids. US News Health Day. June 23, 2012.  (describing unpublished research of Dr. Mi-Jung Park, Inje University College of Medicine, Seoul, Korea.)

12.      Breast Cancer Prevention Partners,

13.      Report to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission by the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel on Phthalates and Phthalate Alternatives

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