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Hidden Baby Hazards

We don’t want unbending worlds. Imagine a world where everything made from polyvinyl chloride from gloves and hoses to plastic wrap was as solid as sewer pipe—and just as unbending—and you would be living without phthalates. Phthalates belong to a family of petrochemicals known as plasticizers and are used to make plastics more malleable; lotions penetrable into the skin, hair and other surfaces; and adhere fragrances to formulas and bodies. Although plasticizers were derived from castor and camphor in the 19th century (cellulose nitrate), the first widespread use of phthalates from petroleum sources came in the 1920s.

In the sense that phthalates are used with our favorite toys (think rubber chickens), extend the aromatic powers of fragrances and lotions, to form electrical wire insulation and as handle grips on garden tools, they’re quite desirable and necessary. But there’s also a dark side to them.

Phthalates do not stay put in formulas and tend to migrate into the air and surfaces of the environment. They can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin and eaten, and their accumulation in our tissues is causing scientific concern over long-term effects.

In 2005, a study linked phthalates to biologically disturbing reproductive outcomes among male babies.[i] Dr Shanna Swan found that exposure during pregnancy caused decreased anogenital distance in baby males. The baby boys of mothers with highest phthalates were 7x more likely to have shortened anogenital distance. Although this might not seem like a big deal and probably goes unheeded by almost every delivery room doctor, the measurement is used as a biological marker of fetal exposure to endocrine disruptors in animals. Decreased anogenital distance indicates a chemical blurring of male-female sexual physiology (eg, Missour River sturgeon and Florida panthers, both having a difficult time sustaining their populations much less figuring out who is the man and who is the woman). Other studies have linked these chemicals to undescended testicles in baby boys.[ii]


[i]  Swan SH, Main KM, Liu F, Stewart SL, Kruse RL, Calafat AM, Mao CS, Redmon JB, Ternand CL, Sullivan S, Teague JL (August 2005). "Decrease in Anogenital Distance among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure". Environ. Health Perspect. 113 (8): 1056–61. doi:10.1289/ehp.8100. PMC 1280349. PMID 16079079

[ii]  Barrett, Julia R. (2005). "Phthalates and Baby Boys: Potential Disruption of Human Genital Development". Environ Health Perspect 113 (8): A542. doi:10.1289/ehp.113-a542a. PMC 1280383.