One of the major contributors to today’s epidemic of chronic disease is the accumulated body burden of lipid-soluble toxins that remain in our bodies for years and eventually tip the scales toward disease, but this is not the only mechanism by which toxicity causes disease. There are a number of common chemical substances that, even though they have very short half-lives inside the body, their toxicity is significant enough to more than double the risk of certain cancers.

plasticThe first of these chemicals are phthalates. This class of chemicals is among the most commonly produced chemicals in the world because of their low cost and broad applications. Their most common industrial use is to increase the flexibility and durability of plastic materials. If you consider the massive amount of plastics produced each year, its not difficult to believe that billions of pounds of phthalates are produced each year and are used to produce everything from detergents, plastic bags, insecticides, household cleaners, cosmetics, furniture, children’s toys, adhesives, as well as food packaging. They are also very common in nail polish, and they are used in almost every single fragrance on the market.

Phthalates are not permanently bonded to the plastic materials and easily leach from the plastics and can migrate into the air, food, ground, and surfaces they come into contact with. In fact, one of the most common routes of exposure is through consuming foods that have been in contact with plastic materials such as Tupperware, saran wrap, or other plastic containers.

Phthalates are considered to be of low toxicity based on the fact that they are quickly released from the body within 24 hours. But this presumption is misleading because it relies on the amount of toxicity from a single moment of exposure. The average American, or European, citizen is exposed to phthalates every day, often multiple times a day. The exposure is continuous and happens for years.

Various studies have been done to determine the health effects of phthalates through continuous exposure. Interestingly, the adverse health effects express themselves differently based on gender. A study was published in 2007 by Hauser R, Meeker JD, Singh NP, et al. discovered that phthalates of various types significantly contributed to infertility in males. Decreased sperm motility and DNA damage were the primary methods of reduced fertility. There was no level found that did not correlate with some degree of sperm damage, even at levels considered to be typical of the average US resident.

Where sperm damage appears to be the greatest is even prior to infancy, in the womb. During the fetal development stage, studies show that in animals whose mothers have been exposed to phthalates, the male offspring are more likely to be born with malformed or improperly developed reproductive organs. At least one study has shown that the same may also occur in humans through in vitro experiments on human fetal testes, but they only used one form of phthalate, MEHP, which is considered to be among the least toxic. However, the MEHP increased programmed cell death in formative cells called germ cells that are critical for fetal development. One can only imagine what the effects would be of other, more toxic, forms of phthalate.

breast cancer ribbonIn women, elevated levels of phthalates have been shown to increase the risk of uterine tumors, endometriosis, and especially breast cancer. Women with very high levels of MEP, which is a metabolite of a very common phthalate called DEP that is found mostly in cosmetics, were more than twice as likely to develop breast cancer than those with the lowest levels, according to a study published in 2010 by the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico after studying over 200 Mexican women. They also found that premenopausal women were four times more likely to develop breast cancer with elevated phthalate levels.

To reduce exposure levels to phthalates is actually not complicated. The simplest rule of thumb is to avoid using soft plastics in your home. Tupperware, saran wrap, and other soft plastic containers should not be used for food, especially for children. Don’t buy food that is packaged with plastic contacting the food. Furniture, tools, and other materials made of PVC produce phthalate dust. Reduce, as much as possible, the amount of this material in the living areas of your home. Reading the ingredients of your cosmetics, detergents, hair care, and other personal hygiene products to ensure that they don’t contain phthalates will also greatly reduce your daily exposure.

cosmeticsThere is, however, another very common group of chemicals that are found in almost every cosmetic, shaving cream, deodorant, bottled soap, lotion, and cream in the low price section. Parabens are used as preservatives and antibacterials, and their widespread use is due to their extremely low cost and supposed minor toxicity. Parabens, unlike other chemicals, can be absorbed through the skin and make their way into body tissues.

Parabens have been found to imitate estrogen in the bodies of humans and animals in many studies. More recent studies, however, have been finding a number of connections between paraben exposure and breast cancer. In 2004 a study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found that parabens induce the growth of breast cancer cells in vitro. While it may not technically cause breast cancer, it may strongly promote its development.

An interesting observation made by a number of researchers is that many new breast cancer cases are developing in the breast tissue on the outer portion of the breast very near where antiperspirant is used, and antiperspirants very commonly contain parabens.

The two primary negative health effects of parabens are that they inhibit the function of certain enzymes that break down estrogen, causing hormonal imbalances and irregularities in the amount of available estrogen, and they cause cellular mitochondria to function improperly.

Avoiding parabens is typically easier to do than avoiding phthalates, because most items that contain parabens require them to be listed as an ingredient. The most common forms of parabens that you will see on ingredient labels are Methyl-, propyl-, benzyl-, butyl-, and ethylparaben. It is not uncommon to see three or four different parabens in one product. Shampoos, conditioners, shaving cream, body lotion, hand soap, hair gel, make-up, and they are even found in some packaged foods and beverages.

Protecting children from these substances is extremely important during both the prenatal phase, and during the infant and toddler years when their immune and endocrine systems are still developing, not to mention the fact that because of their smaller body size, smaller doses are more concentrated and children are therefore more sensitive.

Plastic children’s toys, and other substances mentioned above should be stringently avoided. Plastic pacifiers, baby bottles, baby soap, infant formula, all of these are guilty until proven innocent of containing phthalates and parabens.

Thankfully, once you stop the flow of phthalates and parabens into your body, it typically only takes a few days for the metabolites to leave the body. The danger comes from continuous exposure for long periods of time.

clean worldPhthalates and parabens are just another example that we as consumers need to be well educated and vigilant in order to protect our health and well being, as well as the health of our families and loved ones. Learn what’s on the label and keep your environment and diet clean.