Photograph courtesy of Sarah Rosneau.

The Clinic is an ongoing collaboration between the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF, Mission Loc@l and UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Prescriptions is a blog about health written by scientists at the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF.

I was ducking into my son’s car when I saw it: the air freshener, dangling from the rear-view mirror. It was clear, just from looking at it, exactly what it was.

“Oh my God!” I screamed, without even thinking. “Your nuts! They’re gonna shrink!”

Anyone with a teenage son knows how odiferous they can be — and how oblivious they can be to the odors they create. As an OB/GYN, there very few things that gross me out, but over the years my sons have come the closest. Half-eaten bags of takeout and sweaty clothes abandoned in strange places have been known sprout new life forms before I traced the “What died?” odor back to its source.

Several years ago I began encountering more and more studies about phthalates and their negative side effects. They’ve been associated with thinking and behavior problems in kids and less coordinated movement in baby girls. In rodents, phthalates have been found to cause infertility, decreased sperm counts, and abnormalities of the penis and testicles.  In preliminary studies of baby boys, alteration of male anatomical structures as well as undescended testicles are associated with prenatal phthalate exposures.

Phthalates, like  BPA, which I wrote about recently, are found in a surprisingly wide variety of products: vinyl flooring, carpeting, food packaging and some pill coatings, to name a few. It’s in so many things that it would drive an average person insane trying to avoid contact with it entirely. And it’s not even possible –  some manufacturers list “phthalates” as an ingredient, others choose to list them under different names, or not all, on the grounds that doing so would reveal the “trade secret” aspect of their product.

But there’s one almost sure way to know if something has phthalates: if it smells good. Scented lotions, scented laundry detergent and definitely that air freshener. I used to be a big fan of air fresheners, scented candles and perfume, but the research I’ve encountered has ruined them for me. Now, no matter how good it smells, I buy unscented.

Occasionally I find myself wondering if all the girly products I loved when I was pregnant and breastfeeding have made my sons unable to give me grandchildren, but I reassure myself by repeating that I don’t want grandchildren yet anyway.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t use the information I have now to take steps to preserve the family legacy. “Why,” I asked my son in exasperation, “can’t you just keep your car clean?”

I then found out that the bad smell came only after his older brother had borrowed the car and left a bag of takeout underneath the driver’s seat, where it proceeded to — well — grow new life forms.

“Ha, ha” I thought, “car smell karma.”

How to minimize phthalate exposure?

  • Avoid scented products. If you like scented lotion, buy unscented and add a few drops of essential oil to it.
  • When buying new cosmetics, check them out at the Environmental Working Group’s database first.
  • This one’s a little tricky. If you’re buying vitamins and supplements, or over-the-counter drugs like aspirin, avoid those that have an enteric coating (the best way to tell is if the letters EC are next to the name of the drug). An enteric coating is meant to protect people with irritable stomachs, but it also contains phthalates. If your stomach is fine, buy another variety.
  • Avoid plastic wrap, and food that comes wrapped in layers of plastic packaging.
  • If you’re planning on having children, or are pregnant, be extra vigilant during that window of time. Phthalates seem to pose the most harm to developing fetuses, rather than adults.
  • Support legislation that would require clearer labeling of items with phthalates or ban them entirely. It’s hard and nerve-wracking to try to shop your way out of chemical exposure — legislation is the thing that will have the most effect in the long run.

Follow Us

Post Doctoral Fellow at UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment

Join the Conversation


Leave a comment
Please keep your comments short and civil. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published.