They lurk inside plastics, and from there migrate to air, food, human body and even unborn babies. Phthalates or phthalate esters are organic chemicals commonly used as plasticizers to make plastic supple. They are responsible for plastic products being cheap, easy to clean—and toxic.
Phthalates can damage the male reproductive system, impair the lungs and affect the duration of pregnancy. They also reach babies through breastfeeding. Animal studies have shown phthalates cross the placenta barrier. Children under three years are more likely to be exposed to phthalates because they tend to chew and suck on plastic toys. Since their metabolic, endocrine and reproductive systems are immature, they are more vulnerable.
Phthalates are produced by removing water molecules from petrochemicals.
They look like clear vegetable oil and are odourless. Till recently di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (dehp) dominated the use of plasticizers in toys. After scientific studies showed dehp as toxic, di-isononyl phthalate (dinp) has become the most commonly used plasticizer. Studies show dinp is also harmful. The EU and the US strictly regulate the use of phthalates in toys but in India there are no checks on their use.
Delhi ngo Centre for Science and Environment tested 24 toy samples of major brands for the presence of phthalates. In October 2008, it randomly purchased toy samples from markets in Delhi. Fifteen were soft toys and nine hard toys made in four countries. Tests showed all samples contained one or more phthalates— dehp, dinp, dbp ( di-n-butyl phthalate) and bbp (benzyl butyl phthalate), all harmful—in varying concentrations.
Eleven samples (46 per cent) had phthalates exceeding the EU limit of 0.1 per cent by mass of plasticized material. The threshold limit cannot be set lower than 0.1 per cent as phthalates can be found below this level as contaminants in the manufacturing process even if not used as plasticizers.
dinp was detected in nearly 42 per cent of the samples. In 29 per cent of the samples it exceeded the EU limit. The highest concentration of dinp, which is restricted in the US and EU in toys that can be put in the mouth, was found in the squeaky toys made by Indian company Funskool India. At 16 per cent concentration it was 162 times the EU limit.
dehp was detected in 96 per cent of the toys but in concentrations below the EU limit, except in a teether and two toys: inflatable bop bag dinosaur (0.2 per cent, twice the EU limit) and bath duck (2.6 per cent). The baby teether ostensibly made of non-toxic, food-grade silicone rubber had dehp at a concentration three times the EU limit. It was made by a company in Taiwan.
dbp was found in soft and hard biters at levels two times the EU limit.
The majority of the toys, which contained high levels of phthalates, were made in China. Six squeeze toys from China contained phthalates two to 80 times above the EU limit. Four of these were made by Lovely Collection, which did not even bother to mention the address of the manufacturer and the date of manufacture on the package.
DEHP: It is considered one of the most toxic phthalates and has been banned in toys in several countries. Exposure to it via house dust is known to cause asthma and allergy in children. In mammals it has been found to interfere with male and female reproductive systems such as early development of testes. It has also been found responsible for poor semen quality, genital defects and premature breast development in humans, and reduced testosterone in male rats. Exposure to DEHP during pregnancy has also been linked to pre-term birth in human beings.
DINP: Prenatal toxicity studies on rats have shown slightly increased rates of skeletal retardation and occurrence of soft tissue and skeletal malformations. When fed to rats it leads to increased liver and kidney weights.
DBP: It has been linked to poor semen quality in men, premature breast development in females and asthma and allergic symptoms in children. In male rat pups developmental defects similar to the testicular dysgenesis syndrome have been documented. Genital defects and reduced anogenital distanceâ€”between the anus and the base of the penisâ€”a sign of reproductive disorder, in male rats have also been observed.