One study showed that 3- to 6-year-old boys of women who had high levels of phthalates during pregnancy were less likely to engage in “typical male” type play such as play-fighting and playing with trucks. The other study showed that 1-year-old boys of mothers in the high-phthalates group showed signs of impaired production of testosterone, the male sex hormone.
While experts agree that more research is needed to determine whether phthalate exposure affects male fertility, Swan believes that it may affect the development of boys. “We know phthalates are in these products. We know they get in our bodies. The debate comes over how risky they are,” she says.
In another study in 2008, high levels of phthalates were found in the urine of babies that were recently soaped or slathered with baby shampoo, powder, or lotion. There was no connection made to the amount of phthalates and any reproductive problems, but the study got a lot of attention because the questionable chemicals were in products especially targeted toward babies.
In 2008, Congress banned specific levels of certain phthalates (BBP, DEHP, and DBP) in toys, citing studies showing the toxic effects of these substances. The EPA is adding eight phthalates to their “Chemicals of Concern” list, meaning the agency will keep a close watch on the chemicals with more stringent limitations -- and even banning -- possible in the future.
“We recommend looking to avoid phthalates,” says Andrews. “One of the concerns is that we know the chemicals end up in the bloodstream.”
But if you want to avoid these chemicals, it’s not as simple as shopping for products without phthalates listed on the ingredient label. It’s often difficult to know if phthalates are in a product because manufacturers aren’t required to list the specific chemicals that make up fragrances -- and those fragrances can often contain phthalates, which are used to make smells last longer. To be sure, look for labels that say “no phthalates” or “phthalate-free.”
“The level of risk you want to assume and how cautious you want to be is a personal choice,” says Swan. “Some people will go out of their way to avoid every conceivable risk and some will say they aren’t going to worry about anything. Most people fall somewhere in between.”