Research Horizons


Phthalates and Your Health

New findings from experts at Cincinnati Children’s suggest that living a little “greener” may help young women who experience early puberty reduce some of the elevated risk they face of developing breast cancer later in life.

The study, led by Frank Biro, MD, and colleagues, was published Sept. 1, 2020, in the Journal of Adolescent Health. It mentions that a common class of chemicals, called phthalates, may be contributing to obesity,  a known risk factor for breast cancer.

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates have been used for many years to make plastics softer and more flexible. These plastics are so common that more than 95 percent of all people have detectible levels of phthalates in their urine. They can be found in everything from perfumes and shampoos to food packaging, detergents, vinyl flooring and shower-curtains.

Previous studies have found that pregnant women should minimize their exposures to phthalates. These chemicals act like hormones, which in turn can disrupt the function of natural hormones, which can increase diabetes risk and interfere with male genital development.

These chemicals also are considered “obesogens,” which means they contribute to the risk of obesity. For these reasons, several types of phthalates have been banned from use in baby toys and teething rings since 2009, but they can still be found in many consumer products.

It is likely impossible to eliminate phthalate exposure in the United States, Biro says. But concerned parents can take steps to reduce exposure to their children.

Steps to avoid exposures:
  • Check lipsticks, perfumes, lotions and nail polishes for labels indicating they are phthalate-free. A number of “natural” products advertise this online, but sometimes labels are not specific.
  • Check labels on your laundry detergents, air fresheners and other scented products. Opt for non-scented products if ingredient labels are not clear. Many are not.
  • Minimize plastics used for food storage and avoid heating food in plastic. Use glass, ceramic and stainless steel containers when possible.
  • Minimize use of other plastic products with the recycling code numbers 3 and 7. Those coded 1, 2 or 5 are phthalate-free.
Steps toward a healthier diet:

Increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, foods more frequently that are known to contain “phytoestrogens”. Those foods include:

  • Fruits vegetables including apples, carrots, and berries
  • Grains including wheat, oats, barley, rice and linseed (flax)
  • Beans including dried beans, lentils, soy beans, tofu and soy beverages.

If you do not live in a city (such as Cincinnati) that provides activated carbon filter treatment for drinking water, consider installing home filters that use granular activated carbon.

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Read more about the new findings