If you’re a health-conscious American, chances are you’ve read about phthalate compounds in some cautionary piece of journalism or another. Perhaps you’ve heard the horror stories of phthalate seepage from your plastic containers contaminating your macaroni-and-cheese lunches in the microwave. Or maybe you’ve read about pre-teen and adolescent afflictions of high blood pressure and resistance to insulin stemming from phthalates used as substitutes for DEHP. Maybe you’re even savvy to the recent report in Environmental Science and Technology that describes carrots, lettuce, and strawberries soaking up phthalates. However, the accusations levied against phthalates may make better headlines than factual stories. The truth is that, in all likelihood, phthalate compounds are not going to even make you sick, let alone kill you.
Understanding What Constitutes a Phthalate
For those who’ve not heard the term phthalate (or even those who are only familiar through tales of plastic horrors), it’s a family of compounds typically used in softening PVC so that it exhibits more flexible qualities. Whether you’ve heard of the phthalate family or not, you’ve probably used phthalates (and probably used them hundreds of times a day). This is because phthalates make affordable plastics so versatile.
The Truth About Phthalates in Plastic Containers and Packaging
Going back to that delicious microwaved macaroni-and-cheese meal, you’re probably more at risk of getting sick from the additives in the macaroni-and-cheese itself than phthalate leakage from your microwaved container. That’s because you’re not very likely to find any phthalate compounds in your plastic containers for foods. Since a bonding process is used to fuse phthalates to the plastic material to which they are added, seepage and evaporation are rare. But if rare isn’t good enough for you (and who can blame you?) you can rest assured that the FDA has reviewed all plastic containers manufactured for use in packaging and microwaving food. Before you pop a plastic container in the microwave, cover yourself by checking that your container features the official microwave-safe emblem. If the microwave-safe symbol is missing, microwave at your own risk.
The Flimsy Study on High Blood Pressure in Children
The American Chemistry Council set up a site solely devoted to educating the public on phthalates. It comes as no surprise that the site hosts an entire page devoted to dispelling phthalate myths. One of the first myths the site tackles are the claims that phthalate exposure leads to increased blood pressure and resistance to insulin in pre-teens and adolescents. The ACC pokes holes in the study, illustrating lack of causal relationship, measured effects, and proof. They even close by reminding us that the author of the study admitted further research is required to support claims that phthalates contribute to such ailments in children and teens.
Phthalate Absorption in Plants
Environmental Science and Technology immediately clips the wings of phthalate fears in its report of plants absorbing the chemical compounds. While their experiments support their claims, they also showed that phthalates didn’t seem to migrate much from the root systems to the plants’ leaves. In addition, the plants proved adept at transforming phthalates to plant tissue.
It’s easy for media coverage to exploit a lack of understanding to make a family of compounds like phthalates seem ominous. But phthalate research is vast and thorough. Officials for the FDA understand the compounds that make up the phthalate family front-to-back, and assess these compounds with strict scrutiny before using them in plastic packaging for food or plastic containers bearing the microwave-safe symbol. In short, you can breathe a little easier knowing that phthalates are not going to kill you.