Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Tuesday Toxin Talk

I'm currently reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith (Executive Director of Environmental Defence) and Bruce Lourie (President of the Ivey Foundation). The book examines the toxins that leach out of commonplace items in our homes and workplaces and wind up in our bodies. Smith and Lourie experiment on themselves, purposely exposing themselves to everyday products over a four-day period, and use the results to raise awareness about the dangers that surround us. I'd like to use this space every few Tuesdays to share some of this vital information with you. For more in-depth coverage, please buy the book!


Let's talk about phthalates.

dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

In children, they are associated with impaired testicular function due to "demasculinization": smaller penis size, incomplete testicular descent, and scrotums that are small and not distinct from surrounding tissue. Phthalates are commonly used as plasticizers to keep hard and brittle substances like vinyl soft and rubbery - hence the rubber duck in the title of the book. A subtype of this toxin, diethyl phthalate, is added as a lubricant to personal care products so that moisturizers can easily penetrate and soften the skin and fragrances last longer.

Phthalates are found in everything from toys, shower curtains, and skin care lotions, to building materials, blood and IV fluid bags, and the interiors of new cars. Because they leach out of these products and contaminate everything they come in contact with - including dust - young children face a greater risk of exposure because they physically interact more intimately with their environment, touching everything and then putting their fingers in their mouths.

The good news? Unlike many other chemicals, phthalates break down quickly in the body and in the environment. In other words, if we remove the offending toxin from our homes and workplaces, our bodies will flush them out, and our level of contamination will go down.

So replace those vinyl shower curtains, and stop using personal care products containing "fragrance" or "parfum" (code words indicating some phthalate content). Reduce your intake of fish, meat, and oils because phthalates are fat soluble and get into food because they are present in the general environment. Consume dairy products less frequently, because the tubing used to drain milk from the milking machines to the collection vessels is made of vinyl. Processed foods contain phthalates, too, because food handlers wear vinyl gloves.

When it comes to toys, where you live makes all the difference. The European Union has banned the use of all phthalates in toys and child care articles, while the US has only prohibited the sale of these items when they contain more than 0.1% of three of the phthalate types (DEHP, DBP, and BBP). Canada is finally following suit with a new regulation that meets the American standard I just mentioned. Better late than never!

As for personal care products, we're out of luck. Only the EU has completely banned DEHP, DBP, and BBP; most Canadians and Americans continue to apply a dozen phthalate-containing products on their skin every day. Because there is no legal requirement that this toxin appear on labels, the average consumer can't make smart decisions in the pharmacy. I urge you therefore to consult the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database to find out which products to avoid. Then head over to the David Suzuki Foundation website and sign a letter to the Health Minister that asks for clear labelling of the substances in the "fragrance/parfum" of personal care products.

These days I shop at health food stores and seek out products that specifically state that they are phthalate-free. What will you do to avoid this nasty toxin? 

Photo credits: DBP; shower curtain; hair care products.


  1. Eeeewwww. My kids chewed on those soft plastic bath toys when they were babies. We got rid of the shower liner, and I have been reading the labels on shampoo for years, but I was always looking for parabens, not phthalates. Good to know. I signed that letter through the David Suzuki site a while ago. Just put it on the labels people! Another interesting site/organization is FemmeToxic, they are based in Montreal. I would really like to learn how to make shampoo one day!

  2. Eww indeed, Sherry. Just because we adults are less sensitive to phthalates' poison doesn't mean we're not being harmed, too. Scary stuff.

    Thanks for mentioning Femme Toxic. Here's the link, for those who don't have it: http://www.femmetoxic.com/en

    When I attempt to make shampoo, I'll document the result and share the recipe!

  3. Excellent post, Andrea! Plastic has been getting more attention these days due to the leaching of these harmful toxins into our bodies. Thanks very much for putting this out there. I've tossed (recycled) my plastic-ware at home and have replaced my microwavables with pyrex glass containers and / or ceramics.

  4. You're right, the BPA issue has gotten everyone a little more interested in the dangers lurking in plastic. I, too, switched from plastic leftover containers to glass and ceramics. I kept some of the plastic ones for food that I won't be reheating, and for non-food items.

  5. I have to be honest... as much as I agree that we should be careful about the toxins we injest or expose ourselves to, this isn't a huge issue for me.

    For children, sure. They're certainly weaker, and since we have the capacity to be safer, we should (unlike the "good ol' days" when we didn't know better). But this is not an issue I'm going to lose sleep over... I guess to me there are bigger fish to fry. Let's get those stupid plastic water bottles banned, and THEN we can worry about trace amounts of a potentially harmful chemical for adults, yes?

  6. True, but what about moms-to-be? If phthalates can do damage to children because they're still developing, isn't the risk even greater during pregnancy? If Canada is going to ban the sale of toys containing phthalates, they should make more of an effort to warn pregnant mothers of this danger, too.

  7. Ah, the ol' "Won't Somebody Think of the Children" argument... a valid one, I suppose. I'm not saying this isn't important, just not as important as some other, more pressing issues... although I suppose one could say that about everything and then nothing would get done.

    But I do agree that people should at least be warned. Or companies made to report (in a visible fashion) what their products contain.

  8. Labelling seems like a reasonable thing to ask for. Add to that some public awareness campaigns, and suddenly you have lots of people stopping to check product ingredients before making a purchase. It's a good start, while we wait for toxic substances to be banned.