You may have heard about a class of chemicals called phthalates, most notorious for their hormone disruption. They’re found in a variety of consumer products including polyester (plastic) sports apparel, and based on a law passed in 2008 a USA government panel was tasked with reviewing the science around health effects of these chemicals, despite intense meddling from the chemical industry.

A commission of scientists issued a long-awaited report last month recommending a ban on toxic compounds called phthalates in children’s articles.

Despite the chemical industry’s relentless campaign to overturn the ban on these extremely toxic chemicals, we are heartened that the science and concern for the protection of children’s health won out, at least at this step of the process.

The decision was based on anti-androgenic activity of phthalates, where these chemicals were associated with blocking the action of androgens, the hormones responsible for male characteristics.

What are phthalates?

Phthalates are used to make plastics more flexible. Phthalates have been linked to serious health concerns including early puberty in girls (a risk factor for breast cancer), birth defects, asthma, fertility issues, obesity, reproductive harm in males, DNA damage to sperm, and decreased sperm counts. The World Health Organization and the United Nations released a report in February 2013 identifying phthalates as endocrine disruptors that interfere with important developmental processes in humans and wildlife.


The report called for better information on the hazards and exposures to people and more evaluation of the potential risks. The regulatory systems currently in place is woefully ineffective, leaving the American public unprotected.

The scant data available on phthalates and their alternatives frustrated the scientists as they tried to make sound decisions on the safety of the chemicals, particularly for children. The report stands as a clear and urgent message that Congress needs to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act to provide real protection to the public and especially our children

Next steps

The recommendations on phthalates now go to the Consumer Product Safety Commission for action, which must consider the proposal within the next six months. Industry will no doubt continue to fight these health protective measures in favour of their bottom line. Advocates will be there, in fewer numbers but with stronger scientific grounding, to ensure the CPSC stays focused on their mission to protect children and the broader public from toxic chemicals.

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