all images from PVC: The Poison Plastic
Phthalates, the plasticizer used to make vinyl soft, have been known to be a gender-bender that has been shown to affect the masculinity of rats. Even the Bush Administration, not renowned for its defence of the public against the chemical companies, has banned it from childrens' toys.
Now new research has found new evidence of "phthalate syndrome"- smaller penises, and undescended or incompletely descended testicles- in humans. Shanna Swan, director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester's school of medicine, who led the research, says phthalates are ""probably reproductive toxins and should be eliminated from products gradually because we don't need them."
Chemical Industry dismisses threat
Of course the American Chemistry Council, representing the companies that make the chemical (Exxon Mobil, BASF, Ferro Corp., and Eastman Chemical) warns us to be "cautioned against over-interpreting any individual study."
Screw that; among guys, penis size is serious stuff. Martin Mittelstaedt of the Globe and Mail writes:
"Scientists have been investigating the possible effects on boys of phthalates because rodent studies have shown the chemical has the peculiar ability to shorten the space between the anus and the genitalia in male mice exposed during fetal development. This space, known as anogenital distance or AGD, is normally about twice as long in young male mice than in females. For mice, AGD is considered a measure of masculinity and a way to determine the sex of the pups. Scientists are so confident of the effect that they've given the impact of the chemical on male rodents a name - phthalate syndrome.
Surveys of children have also found that there is a marked sexual difference for this trait in humans, too, with the length in boys about 50 per cent more than in girls.
Dr. Swan's research, conducted on 106 boys from Los Angeles, Columbus, Missouri and Minnesota, is among the first to raise the possibility that phthalate syndrome may also be at work in humans, because it found pregnant women with the highest amount of phthalates were markedly more likely to give birth to boys who had shorter anogenital distances.
When the boys were compared, none of the 29 with a shorter AGD were born to women who had low amounts of phthalates, while among the boys with a long space, only one was born to a mother with a high amount of the chemical."
Steps to take to avoid Phthalates
So beyond the obvious, like no more vinyl toys for babies, Sarah Janssen of the NRDC has some recommendations to lower your exposure:
- Use unscented or fragrance free products. This includes air fresheners. NRDC did air freshener testing and found 12 of 14 brands contained at least one phthalate.
- Look on the label for cosmetics that say "phthalate free" or check the list of companies that have pledged not to use phthalates. [since the study looked at phthalates in the urine of pregnant women this might seem to be an important thing to look at]
- The U.S. phthalate toy ban will not go into effect until next year. In the meantime, buy toys that are not made from PVC, or that are labeled as being phthalate free. The San Francisco Dept of the Env has been doing toy testing and also has a website listing levels of phthalates found in toys.
- Phthalates collect on dust particles. Do frequent dusting but use a damp cloth or wet mop to prevent the dust particles from becoming airborne. Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
- Avoid buying PVC based products that are likely to be treated with phthalates - this includes most "vinyl" products
And we might add, don't let anyone tell you that vinyl windows or siding are "green."
More on vinyl and pthalates in TreeHugger:
President Bush Says "Baby, Get That Phthalate-Filled Building Block Out Of Your Mouth!"
Congress Will Do USEPA's Job: Reduce Childhood Exposure to Phthalates in Toys
Ask Treehugger: What Is An Endocrine Distruptor?
Greenwash Watch: 12 Ways Vinyl Siding is Green
And listen to Nancy White sing about dust bunnies.