Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Imagining a Phthalates-free World

Mainstream media is at last focusing more attention on the toxic chemicals in our lives. Last week Time ran an article entitled Cancer, Cancer Everywhere with a list of suggestions gleaned from the President's Cancer Panel report. One of the families of toxic chemicals mentioned was phthalates. Perhaps you saw the phthalates segment on 60 Minutes Sunday night? If not, do watch it here. Phthalates are impossible to spell and even more difficult to pronounce. They also are impossible to avoid.

What exactly are phthalates? Synthetic chemicals which keep substances, like that smelly vinyl shower curtain, soft and rubbery. Another type of phthalate is used in personal-care products. It allows lotions to penetrate the skin. And, of course, phthalates can be found added to the plastic in children's toys.

This morning I was sitting at the breakfast table with our Green Room guests chatting about this and that. Somehow the conversation turned to hazards in the environment – we were no doubt discussing the environmental mess in the Gulf – and I brought up phthalates. Sue is a nurse and teaches nursing. She explained how phthalates are ubiquitous in hospitals. Her team had been trying hard to reuse plastic. Now they must rethink their policies. I feel for the nurses of the world, because phthalates can be absorbed from the air we breathe and the medical industry is not about to change all its convenient disposable blood bags, etc, any time soon.

I am reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck about body burden, a fascinating book and a real eye-opener. I’m on the second chapter, actually, the one about phthalates. The good news is that “phthalates break down quickly in the human body and in the environment. If we stopped making them tomorrow, the global contamination would disappear from most places relatively quickly – with the exception of isolated environments like deep sediments in lakes and oceans.”

The bad news? Well, you know it. Phthalates are in us already.

I was struck by the statement made by the chemical industry spokesperson, interviewed by Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes. He made it clear chemical company executives do not believe phthalates are dangerous and intend to continue producing them. (Honestly, how do these people sleep at night?)

One easy way to avoid phthalates in cosmetics is to consult the EWG’s Skin Deep database to check that specific products are safe.

While we're imagining a phthalates-free world, take a few minutes to watch this disturbing video from Beth Terry's blog Fake Plastic Fish and get outraged. Only a major outcry from citizens will force legislators to get serious about cleaning up our environment.

What have you done to eliminate phthalates from your life?