Phthalates-hazards in flooring and children's products

Kathleen Schuler, MPH, Co-Director Healthy Legacy, Healthy Kids and Families Program Director

Phthalates (pronounced “THAL-ates”) are a class of chemical plasticizers that are widely used in commerce. Phthalates are often added to vinyl (PVC) plastic to make it softer and more flexible. Vinyl products containing phthalates include flexible tubing, IV bags, shower curtains, purses, older toys, pet toys, food packaging, backpacks, wallpaper, flooring, electrical wire coatings, raincoats, clothing embellishments and more. Phthalates are also added to personal care products and cleaners as fragrance binders. 

Since phthalates are used in so many consumer products, it’s not surprising that we are exposed to phthalates every day in our own homes through food, indoor air, household dust and direct contact with products. Pretty much everyone has phthalates in their body. The Centers for Disease Control’s biomonitoring program has detected phthalates in nearly everyone tested, with women and children aged 6-11 having the highest levels.

Health risks from exposure to phthalates

Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals that can impact health at very low doses, putting fetuses and young children at highest risk. Because phthalates are anti-androgenic (they suppress testosterone) the male reproductive system is a target for adverse effects, including altered sex hormone level, altered genital development, and low sperm count and quality. Effects in females include reduced fertility and increased risk for preterm birth and low birth weight. Exposure also impacts learning and behavior. A new study documents reduced IQ at age 7 associated with prenatal exposure to phthalates.  The phthalate di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) is of particular concern, as it is a possible human carcinogen, affecting the liver. Exposure is associated with liver and thyroid toxicity, reproductive abnormalities and adverse effects on the respiratory system, including asthma.

Phthalates in flooring

Vinyl flooring is a product that can contribute to higher levels of phthalates in the home. Phthalates can migrate out of flooring and get into house dust. New testing data released today by Healthy Stuff identified phthalates in 58% of vinyl floor tiles sampled. Fortunately there are safer alternatives available, including phthalate-free vinyl flooring and non-vinyl flooring alternatives. The Home Depot has announced that they will phase out phthalates in vinyl flooring they sell by the end of this year and Lumber Liquidators has also committed to phasing out phthalates in vinyl flooring. It’s great news that these market leaders are taking steps to protect families. 

Phthalates in children’s products

In addition to flooring, regulatory gaps allow the continued use of phthalates in a variety of children’s products. Federal law bans several phthalates in toys and child care articles (DEHP, BBP, DBP) and provisionally bans others (DINP, DIDP, DnOP). The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission recently released proposed permanent regulations on phthalates, based on the recommendations of an expert science panel. But federal laws do not cover all children’s products. Phthalates are still being used in children’s clothing, footwear, tableware, arts and crafts materials, toys and games, baby care products, kids cosmetics, as well as food packaging and personal care products that contain fragrance. 

Chemical reporting needed in Minnesota

The Minnesota Department of Health has designated nine priority chemicals as harmful and likely to expose children, including three phthalates: BBP, DBP and DEHP, routinely found in the children’s products mentioned. However, parents are not going to find these chemical names on the label. That’s why we need to pass the Toxic Free Kids Act of 2015 (TFKA), which requires that manufacturers report if they are using any of these three phthalates or any of the other priority chemicals. TFKA would allow state agencies to provide accessible information for parents who want to avoid these chemicals in products they buy for their children.  

Please contact your legislator and ask him or her to support the Toxic Free Kids Act to protect Minnesota kids from unnecessary exposure to hazardous chemicals

Reduce your family’s exposure to phthalates:

  • Avoid perfumes and scented personal care products and cleaning products with added fragrance.
  • Find alternatives to vinyl products, including shower curtains, school supplies, purses and toys, which may contain phthalates.
  • Limit plastic products and avoiding vinyl (PVC #3) plastic, which can contain phthalates or lead.
  • Avoid secondhand toys and baby products, which might contain lead or phthalates banned in new products.
  • When remodeling, avoid use of vinyl wallpaper and flooring.