We are constantly inhaling, swallowing and absorbing a frighteningly large number of untested chemicals from the consumer products we use. These toxic chemicals are not just in the food we eat and the air we breathe, they’re also in things like rugs, electronics, furniture and clothing. And many lurk in cosmetics, soaps and shampoos.
Right now, it’s estimated that American industry makes use of more than 80,000 chemicals in consumer products and that only about 75 percent of these chemicals have ever been analyzed for safety or toxicity. If their safety has been evaluated at all, it’s seldom for long term effects. If the substance doesn’t cause illness or death within days or hours, it’s deemed safe.
This sort of analysis doesn’t tell us a thing about cancer risk, because cancer develops over decades.
In general, these compounds are considered harmless until proven toxic. So too many of them are given a free pass to enter our lives.
No surprise — research confirms that these chemicals are circulating in our bodies, where they can increase the risk of cancer and other ills.
And if you think you’re pretty well-informed about the dangers – at least when it comes to the worst of them — well, here’s one you probably overlooked. . .
To lower your risk of cancer, you need to minimize your exposure to phthalates, a ubiquitous class of chemical compounds that we encounter constantly.
The presence of phthalates in our homes troubles many medical researchers. Phthalates are “plasticizers” added to plastic products in order to make them more flexible and less brittle. Among other products, phthalates are mixed into food packaging, plastic tubing, vinyl flooring, PVC pipes and cosmetics. They are different from BPA, another chemical used in plastics.
According to the FDA, phthalates are added to nail polish to keep it from cracking after being applied to nails, to fragrances as a solvent and to hair spray to help it form a flexible but not stiff coating on hair.1
The chemical industry insists these chemicals are harmless. But medical researchers say their studies demonstrate otherwise.
For example, according to researchers at the Silent Spring Institute, a non-profit organization that has conducted analyses on how chemicals impact breast cancer, their review of a wide range of studies provides serious reasons for concern about our phthalate exposure.2
As Silent Spring researcher Kathryn Rogers explains, once these toxins get into your body, they behave as “endocrine disruptors,” interfering with the functions of a variety of hormones. The interference can stimulate harmful effects even in low doses.
Findings from lab tests on animals point to links between these types of endocrine disruptors and the development of breast tumors, although there hasn’t been conclusive evidence from studies of people.
But Ms. Rogers also notes that since we are exposed to a stunningly wide variety of phthalates and other chemicals so often, it’s hard to determine exactly how phthalates figure in cancer. “Every day, we come into contact with many different chemicals, and new ones are constantly being introduced to the market,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to measure exposures to multiple chemicals at multiple times in a person’s life.”
Higher exposure leads to higher risk of cancer
Although researchers have found it difficult to determine the exact cancer risk presented by phthalates, a number of studies indicate that higher exposure makes it more likely you’ll develop a tumor.
Research in England finds that phthalate exposure distorts DNA and damages the genetic material in cells within the digestive tract and in white blood cells.3 And tests in Switzerland show that this class of chemical can change cell behavior in ways that promote the spread and reproduction of cancer cells.4
Meanwhile, a study in Mexico shows that women who have the highest levels of phthalates in their bodies run the biggest risk of breast cancer.5 In this research, a subclass of phthalates seemed to be carcinogenic while another type didn’t have the same effect. But the researchers can’t explain why.
Another troubling finding, this one in Asia, demonstrates that phthalates can make colon cancer harder to treat. This study revealed that plasticizers increase the “stemness” of cancer cells – making them able to more quickly change their functions and defenses. The result: they multiply more rapidly and can speedily adapt in ways that make them resistant to chemotherapy drugs.6
Health disturbances go beyond cancer
Even if phthalates were not involved in cancer, they would still be a health hazard.
I don’t have the space to outline all of their other detrimental effects, but here’s a few for starters:
- They increase allergies: Phthalates cause epigenetic effects (changes in gene function) that are likely to cause inflammation of the airways and allergic reactions.7
- They interfere with the thyroid: Research at Columbia University shows that phthalates compromise thyroid function and can lead to cognitive issues in children.8
- They are linked to weight gain and insulin resistance: A study at the University of Rochester demonstrates links between phthalates in the body and obesity. The chemicals also may increase the likelihood of developing blood sugar problems and type 2 diabetes.9
I think all of these studies are enough to show we should avoid phthalates. And I haven’t even gone into the details of their possible reproductive effects like lowering semen quality, or their potential connection to autism.
One of the first things you should do to reduce your intake of phthalates is to ditch fast food and eat out less. A study at George Washington University shows that fast food contains an inordinate amount of phthalates.10
Even eating at a restaurant where food is prepared to order adds to your phthalate intake. According to these researchers, eating meals at home can lower your phthalate exposure by more than 50 percent. (I assume this means avoiding processed food and making your own meals from scratch.)
Another measure you should take is to avoid products with fragrances. Phthalates serve as the solvents for many of these items. (But organic essential oils should be okay.)
That means you should try to use unscented soaps, shampoos and cosmetics. And don’t use scented candles or air fresheners. No problem for me – I have a bad reaction to scents anyway.
- Don’t heat food in plastic containers: That increases the risk that phthalates will leach from the packaging into the food.
- Eat more organic vegetarian foods: These generally have lower levels of phthalates than meats.
- Avoid using plastic food containers when possible: When washing plastic food containers, if you use them, wash by hand, not in the dishwasher. The high heat of the dishwasher releases phthalates from the containers.
- Avoid using plastic containers whose recycling numbers are 3,6 or 7. Those show that they contain phthalates. The number is on the bottom.
- Use a water filter at home.
No matter what you do, you will be exposed to phthalates to some extent. You can’t avoid them entirely. But when you reduce your exposure by taking an action like not eating fast food, you get a double benefit – you don’t subject your body to the effects of nutrient-depleted processed foodstuffs AND you reduce your phthalate intake.