Phthalates: A critical review of a recent environmental study

February 10, 2022 • Posted in Technical

I read with interest a CNN news story about a new study claiming that phthalates, a synthetic chemical used as a plasticizer in some resins, could be contributing to roughly 100,000 premature deaths annually for people ages 55 to 64. I also found it interesting that, on the same day, while organizing my home office, I came across conference notes from 2019 which suggested that just such a claim, was bound to happen.

The study CNN referenced was published in Environmental Pollution. It compared the concentration of phthalates in the urine of more than 5,000 adults in the aforementioned age group and attempted to compare the levels present to a risk of early death over a 10-year period, taking into account other preexisting health conditions. The lead author of the study, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, made the following statement: “This study adds to the growing database on the impact of plastics on the human body and bolsters public health and business cases for reducing or eliminating the use of plastics.”

In my opinion, there are a couple flaws in Dr. Trasande’s statements. Phthalates are present in a wide range of over-the-counter, everyday products, such as shampoo, hairspray and cosmetics, yet Dr. Trasande immediately pointed to plastics as the cause and neglected to take a critical eye to CPG and personal care manufacturing. Also, during his CNN interview, Dr. Trasande said, “I’m never going to tell you this is a definitive study. It is a snapshot in time and can only show an association.” These statements make me question the motivations behind the study and question its accuracy.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has come out strongly against the Environmental Pollution phthalate study. In its response to CNN, Eileen Conneely from ACC said, “much of the content within Trasande et al.’s latest study is demonstrably inaccurate.” ACC also noted in its rebuttal to the study that all phthalates were represented as equally bad and there was a failure to consider the varying toxicity levels in phthalates. For example, diisononyl phthalate (DINP) and diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP) have lower toxicity than other phthalates.

Now to the prophetic conference notes I found while organizing my home office. They are from my time attending and speaking at Polyethylene Films 2019. One speaker at the conference discussed stabilizers, plasticizers and phthalates found in polyethylene films. During the talk, Andrew Reynolds of Advance Bidco, which owns AMI, noted that the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) — the governing body behind Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) legislation in the EU — declined to list DINP as reprotoxic following a three-year study. In my notes on the speech, I wrote: “Potential to be similar to Bisphenol-A, and fall prey to negative press or faulty science.”

The negative perceptions of Bisphenol-A are based upon one study, whose findings have been called into question by several groups including the ACC. This study flies against numerous other studies that show Bisphenol-A is relatively safe.

And therein lies the issue: one negative and inaccurate study carries the potential to discredit multiple studies on the same topic and sway consumer perception. Unfortunately for the plastics industry, and similar to what occurred with the study on Bisphenol-A, whether the Environmental Pollution study’s findings are confirmed or not, the plastics industry is again placed in a tricky spot, having to defend itself against inaccurate information.


Christopher Thelen

Regulatory Specialist

M. Holland Chris Thelen Regulatory Specialist

Christopher Thelen is M. Holland’s Regulatory Specialist, responsible for obtaining, supplying and maintaining a database of documents covering numerous regulatory issues (e.g., CONEG, FDA, UL, NSF) for clients, as well as technical data sheets and MSDS. He has been with M. Holland for over 20 years.

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