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The impact of plastics on hormonal and brain function in children

Early Puberty, Hypospadias, and Behavior Disorders in children related to exposure to Phthalates, via food and food containers, plastic toys, and skin care products (this was the original title, but it seemed too intense upon editing…)

After much reading and research, I sat and thought about this particular writing segment with trepidation. I returned time and again to the science, to the surprisingly scant literature regarding Phthalates (pronounced f-thalates—get familiar with the pronunciation—this is a very important issue), and felt queasy and worried and nearly overwhelmed.

Why, you wonder? I don’t want to be an alarmist, but…

I have learned a lot over the years about processed foods, the corporate greed that drives the sales and distribution of less-than-real food, and the misinformation that is perpetuated by those corporations who produce these foods and food products. While I know that there is much that I still don’t know, I am crushed by the new learnings I have gained this past week about Phthalates. And I wonder how to share what I’ve learned with others, without inviting angst and guilt, yet I clearly wish to educate the masses and raise a call to action.

Where to begin…?

I do believe that back in the day when companies were moving quickly and making great strides in development of products that would bring a heightened convenience to our lives, that good intentions were what drove the exciting discoveries of new uses of man-made synthetics and chemicals. The scientists of the day weren’t diabolically planning to bring us disease and to compromise our health. I do believe now however, that there is a suppression of the evidence regarding the potential harm from this largely unregulated exposure to synthetics and chemicals, complete with a greed element involved. There have been small scientific studies of the potential health hazards related to the relentless exposure we face, and we do not know enough at this time, yet the corporations producing these products continue to assure us of the safety of their synthetics and chemicals—even as they permeate the food chain.

I am talking about Phthalates, a group of chemicals used in the manufacturing of plastics and plastic products. Imagine the thrill those early scientists must have experienced when it was discovered that Phthalates enhanced the manufacturing of plastics by making plastic products more flexible.

Many millions of pounds of Phthalates are produced each year and 95% of Americans have measurable levels of Phthalates in their urine. Phthalates are found in:

  • plastic food and beverage containers
  • coating on pills
  • vinyl flooring and carpet
  • pesticides (which means they then enter into the food chain)
  • skin care products [think baby lotions, ointments, and shampoo]
  • medical supplies (IV tubing and bags, gloves, NG tubes…studies show that neonates are exposed at five-times higher the allowed daily tolerable intake—how ironic and scary is that?)
  • electrical cords
  • your car dashboard
  • laundry detergent and
  • insect repellent, just to name a few sources of our continual exposure.

Endocrine Disruptors

Perhaps most distressing is the strong correlation noted between exposure to Phthalates, known as “endocrine disruptors”, both in utero and via our daily food chain exposure. Much of the scientific analysis yields a “might increase the risk, and needs further studying” summary as the science addresses the increased incidence of asthma and allergies, ADHD, early puberty, sexual organ malformation and fertility issues—all noted in the most precious of humans, our children.

Somewhere along the way,  a concern was raised regarding the risks associated with a continuous exposure to Phthalates, leading to the invention of a modified product–a low-molecular weight version Phthalates. Their low-molecular weight allowed for the assumption that these next-gen Phthalates were safer than their predecessors, and the newer version was added by the barrel-full to the skin care products used for both children and adults. The most recent data indicates that the continuous and cumulative exposure to the low-molecular weight Phthalates, has in fact, more of an endocrine disruptor effect, especially in-utero.

Early puberty

Look around at the boys and girls in our families and communities. There is evidence, although not definitive, to suggest that exposure to the “endocrine disruptors” found in many household plastics, body care products, and cleaning products has an influence over the age at which boys and girls enter into puberty. This is one of those areas that scientists agree that further studies are warranted. How about we get started on those studies? Early puberty is linked to increased risk for breast cancer as one concern, and there is much dialogue in the world of pediatric social science regarding the correlation of early puberty with early and unsafe sexual behavior.

As a side note, obesity is another contributor to early onset puberty. The correlation to an increased intake of High Fructose Corn Syrup is strong, and I will cover that in another writing session. I’m feeling too emotionally overwhelmed from these two days of research into Phthalates to dive into HFCS for the moment…But, it’s important to point out here that there is a suspected correlation between exposure to Phthalates and Insulin Resistance, which is a precursor to obesity…so the cycle continues regardless of how you look at it.


Hypospadias is a condition in which the urethra within the penis of a male fetus is not properly developed, rendering the urethra to be improperly positioned away from the tip of the penis, requiring surgical repair. This occurs in 1 in 125 boys. Oh my gosh. This is a horrifying and unacceptable rate of incidence, in my opinion.

“The CDC’s analysis of the changes in the frequency of hypospadias in the United States revealed a striking pattern: the rate has more than doubled since 1970. Indeed by 1993, hypospadias was detected in one out of every 125 boys born in the United States.” Holy Moly, what a terrible statistic. And that there is a whisper of a chance that this increased incidence is related to exposure in utero to Phthalates is mind boggling. Per the CDC report, “the percentage of severe cases has increased over this time period, suggesting that other explanations should be sought.” SHOULD be sought? Pardon me, but how about if we start that information seeking right this very minute? Please and thank you.


Everyone has heard of ADHD, a now common health concern for preschool and school-aged children, the incidence for which has risen exponentially over the decades. Is this merely a coincidence that as the exposure to chemicals in children has increased, so has the incidence of ADHD? This, from an NIH review of the literature, “CONCLUSION: The present study showed a strong positive association between phthalate metabolites in urine and symptoms of ADHD among school-age children.”

Clearly there are other contributing causes to the increased incidence of ADHD [think: preservatives, food dyes, too much sugar especially of the HFCS variety, and violent TV shows–this is my opinion of course, as the definitive science is not present at this time, but I am willing to trust my intuition on this]. But the fact that in utero and during the precious infant/toddler years, there is a known correlation between brain development/behavior issues and Phthalates is simply unacceptable.

A Call To Action

Bottom line summary, from my heart: Do I want to wait—for either definitive evidence that there is a direct connection or do I want to follow my intuition that strongly tells me that there is enough correlation already in existence to direct me away from plastics, especially those used to hold food, as well as pesticide-laden produce to minimize my exposure to Phthalates? As consumers, and especially those of you with children or thinking of having children, it seems especially prudent to research your food sources, minimize your use of plastics in the kitchen as well as in your home wherever possible, and to raise your voice actively by sharing your concerns with your family and friends, as well as with the companies that produce these products.

Next up is the research required into the hair and body care products that I personally use so I can determine whether I will keep or toss them…

Robin Mallery

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