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    The concerns around phthalates

    Q. What are phthalates and why are they bad?

    Many chemicals are of concern in the environment, some with profound implications. One of the most concerning group of chemicals are phthalates, which are used as plasticizers to increase the flexibility, transparency, durability and longevity of plastics. They are found in most gel pill coatings.

    Since phthalates are not chemically bound to the plastic, they can be removed by heating or solvents. They can enter the food supply chain. They are found in milk, butter and meats and, as a result, are present in the urine of most Americans. Phthalates are found in the plastic jugs that hold milk, the flexible plastic wrap covering meats, and the tubs in which spreadable butter is packaged.

    It is easy to see how phthalates have entered the food supply.

    Phthalates are used in skincare products to fix or hold color and fragrance. They may be found in moisturizers, skin softeners and nail polish as anti-cracking agents. They are also used as penetration enhancers and as anti-foaming agents in aerosols. Unfortunately, the ubiquity of phthalates has caused concern due to the observation that rodents exposed to phthalates exhibit altered hormones and birth defects.

    In humans, phthalate exposure has been linked to breast cancer, obesity, insulin resistance and ADHD. Phthalates are classified as hormone disruptors, also known as obesogens, and a movement exists to remove them from baby care products in the United States since they can be absorbed through the skin.

    Some believe that childhood obesity, which is a predictor of adult onset type 2 diabetes, may be related to the presence of phthalates in the food supply. Phthalates are best avoided by eating as close to the food chain as possible and not reheating prepared foods in plastic packaging.

    One inadvertent way phthalates can be ingested is by chewing on fingernail polish. Fingernail polishes have been eliminating phthalates in their composition after the passage of a California law. Nevertheless, it is wise to advise concerned patients not to eat their f ngernail polish once it begins to crack, which is a common practice among female adolescents.

    Another recommendation is to not expose food in flexible plastic containers to high heat, such as in the microwave. Heat allows these chemicals to leave the plastic and enter the reheated food where it is consumed. This problem can be avoided by reheating food in glass containers.

    Zoe Diana Draelos, M.D.
    Zoe Diana Draelos, M.D., is a consulting professor of dermatology, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, N.C. She is investigator, ...


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