Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in plastics, glues and inks. Research has indicated the possible negative impact of phthalate exposure on children’s health, and links with childhood cancer have not been ruled out.
Many teethers and soft toys contain phthalates, and there is evidence that these can leach out of these toys and be ingested by children. The European Commission’s Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment has concluded that there are ‘reasons for concern’ over the most common phthalates used in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) toys (ENDS Report 281, June 1998: 49).
Yet, despite being banned in several countries throughout Europe, phthalate-containing toys and teethers have not been banned in the European Union because, say EU officials, there is currently no way to tell how much of these plasticisers is leaching out of the toys.
Unfortunately, phthalates are not confined to teethers and chewy toys. Tests carried out by the UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) found phthalates in baby milk formula. MAFF’s report also noted that a 1993 UK survey of phthalate levels in fatty foods found them to be present in every sample, including meat, fish, eggs, milk and milk products (MAFF, Food Surveillance Information Sheet, Number 82: Phthalates in Food, 1996).
The phthalate diethylhexylphthalate (DEHP) may no longer be used in toys, but it is a constituent of many PVC building materials, such as PVC flooring. Researchers have found that DEHP and other phthalates are present in household dust, where it can be inhaled by both children and adults. There is evidence to suggest that the development of lung problems, including asthma, in the first two years of life is linked to exposure to plastic interior surfaces (Environ Health Perspect, 1997; 105: 972-8).