Phthalates Q&A

Paul Brown

July 2008

Phthalates are synthetic chemicals found in everyday products, including plastic toys and children’s products. They are used to make plastic flexible. Research indicates that boys exposed to phthalates are likely to have smaller genitals and incomplete descent of the testicles. Boys born with undescended testicles are 2-11 times more likely to develop testicular cancer as teenagers or young adults. Phthalates are believed to also affect girls’ hormones, but the health impact is not yet known.

Q: Animals exposed to phthalates are at greater risk of serious diseases and health problems, such as liver cancer, kidney cancer, and male reproductive organ damage1, but have any studies shown that phthalates cause health problems in humans?

A: Yes, studies by Harvard researchers have shown phthalates may alter human sperm DNA and semen quality2, and a study by university faculty from several major medical centers has found that phthalates may cause genital changes for boys3.

Q: Have scientists representing the European Union concluded that di-isononyl phthalate (DINP) is safe?

A: No, in 2006, the European Union banned the use of 6 phthalates in toys that may be placed in the mouth by children younger than 3.4 The banned phthalates are DINP, DEHP, DBP, DIDP, DNOP, and BBzP.

Q: If phthalates are banned, will the toy industry be forced to use unsafe alternatives?

A: No, the language in pending federal legislation requires that alternatives to phthalates not be human carcinogens or reproductive toxicants identified by the Environmental Protection Agency. Safe alternatives are available, and Wal-Mart, Target, and Babies “R” Us have promised to remove or severely restrict children’s products containing phthalates by the end of this year.5

Q: Didn’t the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) say that phthalates are safe and aren’t likely to harm children?

A: Although the CPSC has claimed that phthalates are not proven dangerous, in 1998 CPSC asked industry to voluntarily remove phthalates from teethers and rattles.6 Unfortunately, not all manufacturers have removed phthalates from these products, and teethers and other children’s products with phthalates have been found on store shelves.7

Q: Should the CPSC establish federal regulations for phthalates that preempt state laws?

A: No, preemption does not adequately protect consumers. The CPSC is a small agency overwhelmed by many unsafe products. In 2007, CPSC recalled more than 25 million hazardous toys, and already in 2008, CPSC has recalled nearly 10 million consumer products-6 million of them were children’s products.8 The states of California and Washington have passed strong laws to protect their citizens and children from unsafe products, and it would be inappropriate for federal laws to interfere.

For more information, contact Dr. Diana Zuckerman or Paul Brown at (202) 223-4000 or by e-mail at and


1 Vastag, B., (2001, April). CDC Unveils First Report on Toxins in People, JAMA, Volume 285(14), pp 1827-1828.

2 Duty, S. M., M. J. Silva, et al., (2003). Phthalate exposure and human semen parameters. Epidemiology 14(3): 269-77. Duty, S. M., N. P. Singh, et al., (2003). The relationship between environmental exposures to phthalates and DNA damage in human sperm using the neutral comet assay. Environ Health Perspect 111(9): 1164-9. Duty, S. M., A. M. Calafat, et al., (2004). The relationship between environmental exposure to phthalates and computer-aided sperm analysis motion parameters. J Androl 25(2): 293-302. Duty, S. M., A. M. Calafat, et al., (2005). Phthalate exposure and reproductive hormones in adult men. Hum Reprod 20(3): 604-10.
3 Swan et al., (2005). Decrease in Anogenital Distance Among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure, Environmental Health Perspectives, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

4 Sathyanarayana S, Swan SH et al., (2008, February). Baby Care Products: Possible Sources of Infant Phthalate Exposure, Pediatrics, Vol. 121, No. 2.

5 Pereira, J. and Stecklow, S. (2008, May). Wal-Mart Raises Bar on Toy-Safety Standards, The Wall Street Journal.

6 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, (1998, December). Press release: CPSC Releases Study on Phthalates in Teethers, Rattles and Other Children’s Products.

7 Kay, Jane, (2006, November). San Francisco prepares to ban certain chemicals in products for kids, but enforcement will be tough-and toymakers question necessity,

8 Consumers Union, (2008). Report: Still Not Safe: New Recalls Underline Need for Strong Hazardous Product Legislation.