Canada's Condominium Magazine

Ban on flooring products puts spotlight on phthalates

Two words come to mind when looking into the subject of plasticizing phthalates: topsy-turvy. On the one hand, there’s growing evidence that phthalates are a health risk, especially to children. On the other hand, the market for phthalates is growing; there could be more of them in the many household and personal care products we use every day, not less.  Some products containing phthalates, notably baby bottles, are already banned in Canada, because they are a health risk, but  many others are not. Phthalates themselves are not banned. It’s enough to make a person wonder, are they dangerous or not?

A few weeks ago, two of America’s biggest home improvement products retailers—first Home Depot and then Lowes—announced that they would phase out flooring products that contain the potentially dangerous phthalates. The companies did not take this step without being pushed. Consumer groups like HealthyStuff.org, which considers phthalates to be among the top ten chemical groups of concern, pressured the companies to discontinue the products.

Phthalates are of such concern because they are linked to many health problems, especially in children, even pre-natal. Baby bottles made with phthalates, which are added to plastic products to make them more flexible, were banned in Canada in 2010. Phthalates, themselves, however, are not banned. Moreover, even though pregnant mothers and their foetuses are most sensitive to chemicals like these, there are currently no laws to protect them. Pregnant mothers are pretty much on their own, advised to avoid using plastic and other products that may contain phthalates and even to air out their houses.

That piece of advice about airing out the house might seem rather unscientific, but in fact points to one of the main hazards associated with phthalates. They are added to but do not bond chemically with vinyl in, for example, a flooring product like vinyl laminate. This means that the phthalates can migrate out of the vinyl and collect in dust, which may be inhaled. This could be hazardous for both a pregnant mother and for young children crawling around on the shiny new floor.

Health Canada says that the mere presence of phthalates in a soft vinyl product is not a health risk. Simply touching or even licking the vinyl is not a risk; it becomes so if continued over a long period of time, so that the phthalates leach out of the vinyl and into the body through saliva.

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No phthalates in baby bottles, but they are in plenty of other products.

 

Children are exposed to phthalates through environmental sources (e.g., air, water, food) as well as consumer products (e.g., toys).. Children’s estimated exposures are often greater than those in adults which may be due to increased intakes of food, water, and air on a bodyweight basis, as well children’s unique exposure pathways such as mouthing of objects and ingestion of non-food items.

US Environmental Protection Agency

Given the many serious health problems associated with phthalates—liver cancer, prenatal damage to the reproductive organs of male babies, various types of hormone disruptions, cancers—one would expect to find guidance from one’s family doctor. Researchers in the US, however, found that only about 20 per cent of physicians talked about the problem with their pregnant women patients, mainly because they don’t know enough about it. The doctors reported that it was easier to talk about other things, like nutrition and smoking and alcohol use during pregnancy, so they avoided the topic of phthalates.

Check labels on cosmetics

One of the most pervasive sources of phthalates is cosmetics. Products like lip balm, shampoo, body lotion, nail polish and fragrances are loaded with chemicals. The average person uses nine products every day, containing 126 unique ingredients, according to the Environmental Working Group in the United States. That average is higher for teenaged girls, who use seventeen products daily. In Canada, cosmetic products are required to list ingredients on the labels, so users are advised to look for, and avoid, compounds like dibutyl phthalate and diethyl phthalate.

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Does the growing concern, at least among consumer advocacy groups, mean that phthalates will soon disappear from the market? On the contrary. The global market for phthalates was valued at about $6.1 billion in 2014, according to market analyst MicroMarket Monitor. It is forecast to grow by roughly 5 per cent per annum until 2019, when it will be worth $7.8 billion. The biggest market for phthalates is the Asia-Pacific area, which accounts for 74 per cent of global use.

The Canadian government, meanwhile, announced last year that it was “revising,” by which it meant delaying, its assessments of fourteen phthalates. Why? Because it was waiting to see what the US did. A Consumer Product Safety Commission in the US has recommended that five phthalates used in children’s toys and childcare articles be banned. Canadians will have to wait until at least 2017 to find out whether they are banned here as well.

Some common sources of phthalates:

  • PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and other plastic toys
  • Building materials: e.g. PVC pipes, vinyl flooring, wallpaper, paints, adhesives
  • Food packaging materials: e.g. plastic wrap, plastic containers
  • Medical equipment: e.g. IV tubing, other medical tubing & devices
  • Plastic shower curtains (PVC)
  • Bags & backpacks with PVC
  • Air fresheners
  • Cosmetics/personal care products
  • Dashboards and other plastics parts in the interior of cars

More information can be found at Health Canada and the Children’s Health & Environment Partnership.

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