Monday, June 29, 2009

The "Rubber Ducky" Chemical

The “Rubber Ducky” Chemical

What exactly are Phthalates?

Phthalates in the homePhthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are plasticizers used widely in consumer products such as children’s toys, cosmetics, flexible plastics, lubricants, nail polish… basically you have been in contact with them numerous times. Phthalates were first introduced in the 1920’s and promptly replaced camphor, a potent lubricant. Modern-day phthalates are popular in various product recipes, and thus are found in virtually all households. In addition, phthalates are sneaky because companies are not required to list them on labels. Next time you are reading the label in search of benzylbutyl phthalate (in car products) or diethyl phthalate (in nail polish), prepare to be disappointed. Despite the worldwide health concerns, phthalates can be very useful and at times necessary. So when you shampoo your locks be thankful for the lathering smoothness DEP (diethyl phthalate) provides.

The squeak in your rubber ducky

The rubber ducky is a bath time icon for many nostalgic parents and splashing kids. The reason your favorite bath toy is squeaky and soft is because of phthalates. They are used to increase flexibility in children’s toys and durability in a wide array of products. In addition, phthalates are used as lubricants in lotions, fragrances, adhesives, and the main component in anti-chipping nail polishes.

It is fair to say that they are virtually everywhere, but that’s not the half of it. The chemical make-up of phthalates allows them to emit from the products they are found in. That beloved new car smell is nothing but the PVC imbedded phthalates escaping into the car’s interior. The same emitting process takes place within our homes, work places, hotel rooms, and in our atmosphere.

Is the air freshener worth more than…

your health

Chances are that you have previously, and unknowingly, purchased an air freshener which may have contained DEP and/or DBP. The mentioned phthalates are listed by the California EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment as chemicals which cause birth defects and should be avoided, if possible. Numerous people purchase air fresheners by the handfuls for their cars and homes without knowing the side-effects behind their favorite fragrance. But, there are many other health concerns related to phthalates. Some are known to be endocrine disruptors, which means they mimic the body’s hormonal functions and thus disrupt normal function. Studies have shown that phthalate concentration is higher indoors than outdoors, thus households with elevated phthalate levels promote asthma and respiratory issues. In addition, studies involving human and rat subjects have suggested that exposure to certain phthalates can increase the risk of cancer, cause sex-hormone abnormalities, premature puberty, organ malfunction, and fetal sex-organ malformation.

… the Earth

The top environmental concerns associated with emitting phthalates are waterway pollution and poisoned marine life. Problems occur once chemicals, like dibutyl phthalate, leach into the environment and reach elevated concentration. Since phthalates break down quickly in the air, soil and water contamination are priority areas for prevention. Once they enter water they begin to accumulate in fish and shellfish causing deformities, deaths, and fertility reduction. Phthalates may enter water sources through various ways, so identifying the precise source of contamination is difficult. Regulating industrial emissions and eliminating phthalates from various products may decrease the possibility of contamination.

What’s being done

Phthalates in the homeThe National Pollution Inventory (NPI) conducted a ranking of 400 hazardous substances which are concerning to human health and the environment. Ranking 66th is DBP (dibutyl phthalate). This is the ever-so-popular chemical in cosmetics, paints, foams, and plastics. Upon the release of such data, many urged their favorite companies to remove harmful phthalates from their products. Many companies like Dove, Lady Speed Stick, L’Oreal, Revlon and Neutrogena decided to invest in the suggestion and now provide their costumers with phthalate-free products.

On October 15, 2007, Governor Schwarzenegger signed the Stop Toxic Toys Bill (AB 1108), making California the first state to ban phthalates in children’s toys. Moreover, this bill prohibits the manufacture, sale, and circulation of toys and child feeding products that contain phthalates. As of February 10, 2009, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission prohibits the national distribution of children’s toys and child care articles containing more than 0.1% of six phthalates (DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, DIDP, and DnOP). Regardless of when they were manufactured, products intended for sale targeting children ages 12 and younger must abide.

In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working along with various cities to study the local effects of phthalates to human health and the environment. The study’s short and long term goals include (1):

  • Defining phthalate concerns within current regulations.
  • Placing sediment phthalate concerns in perspective with other sediment contamination risks and within the broader issue of phthalate risks from all exposure pathways.
  • Documenting where phthalates occur and identifying potential sources.
  • Identifying source control and treatment options.
  • Examining data collected by work group members and providing recommendations on next steps.
  • Sharing findings with the public.
How to avoid overuse


If not modified, the rubber ducky may soon go the way of the dodo via government policies, and then the phthalate concerns will surely decrease. So while you wait for the phthalate-free revolution in the plastics industry to take place, you should learn how to avoid overexposure.

Follow these guidelines to significantly decrease your exposure to phthalates:

· Since phthalate concentration is higher indoors due to poor air circulation, it is important to periodically keep windows open and to use an air filter if available.

· Phthalates are not required to be listed on product labels (expect in California), so look for products advertised as phthalate-free.

· Since phthalates are typically used to retain scent, purchase fragrance-free products.

· Limit your child’s exposure to oily, soft-rubber, and lubricating products, including flexible teethers or pacifiers.

· Shop online for phthalate-free personal products.

· When shopping, be on a lookout for abbreviations like: DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, DIDP, and DnOP.

· Do not park your car in direct sunlight for a prolonged period of time. Windshield sun reflectors are a good way to keep your interior cool.

· Instead of purchasing air fresheners use lemons, vinegar, coffee and other natural resources to eliminate odors.

Learn more about home health:

Indoor Air Quality

Air Purifiers

Home Health Quiz

Home Performance and Indoor Air Quality Experts


(1) Department of Ecology: State of Washington

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