Natural Parenting

What Are Phthalates? Nix Them in 3 Easy Steps

rubber duckCan a rubber ducky make your kids fat? A 2012 study found a connection between a chemical found in PVC and kids’ obesity: Children with the highest level of the common phthalate di-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) in their blood were nearly five times as likely to be obese as children with the lowest levels.

But what are phthalates? These chemicals, also known as plasticizers, are used to soften plastic. (Want to know why that your old ball gets brittle? That’s because phthalates have leached out of it.) They also serve to help personal care products penetrate the skin, as well as preserve synthetic fragrances.

What are phthalates? Basically, they’re endocrine disruptors, meaning they affect your hormones. And they’ve been linked to obesity. Phthalates enter our kids bodies through absorption, as well as by ingesting foods or drinks that have been stored or served in plasticized plastic — especially if it’s been heated. Children can also be exposed to phthalates if they suck on a tainted toy or play with it and then put their hands in their mouths.

A study by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which found phthalates up to 59 times the safety level in Disney lunchboxes, backpacks and rain gear—levels which would be illegal in toys—prompted 65,000 parents to sign petitions aimed at the company on and In 2013, demonstrators disrupted Disney’s annual shareholder meeting in Phoenix, AZ demanding PVC be removed from their products. 

The Environmental Protection Agency identified phthalates as “chemicals of concern” and declared that “children have the highest exposures to phthalates of all groups monitored.”

Here’s the obesity connection: Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, meaning they affect your hormones. Specifically, they mimic hormones like estrogen and testosterone and can trigger the same biological processes—puberty, for example, or weight gain—that those hormones would naturally trigger.

Childhood obesity in the United States has tripled over the past 30 years—from 7% in 1980 to 20% in 2008—and the cost of treating obesity in adults has ballooned to nearly $100 billion.

Pun intended.

Yes, we need to stop super-sizing and get our kids outside to play instead of living in virtual worlds where their avatar is fitter than they are. But maybe we also need to think about the plastic that we’re exposing them to on a daily basis.

Concerned? Here’s what you can do:

  1. Avoid PVC in bottle nipples or sippy cups. My third child surprised me by drinking from a cup at six months and we never used sippies at all!
  2. Avoid synthetically fragranced personal care products, especially perfumes and lotions.
  3. Make sure your children’s school supplies—from lunch boxes to notebooks—are PVC-free, by checking them out on CHEJ’s annual Back-to-School Guide.

And it might be time to lose the plastic ducky.