Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastics. They are found in a wide range of industrial applications, including:
- food packaging
- children’s toys
- personal care products
- medical devices
These chemicals are easily released from plastic products into the environment and can be absorbed by the human body through inhalation, ingestion, or dermal exposure.
Although they have previously been deemed safe for use by regulatory agencies, recent studies have shown evidence of their potential health risks.
Endocrine Disrupting Effects
Phthalates are known to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with the normal functioning of hormones in the body.
They have been shown to have negative impacts on the endocrine system and multiple organs, with potential long-term effects on pregnancy, child growth and development, and the reproductive system.
One of the organs that appear to be affected by phthalates is the pancreas. Your pancreas plays a critical role in regulating blood sugar levels and insulin production, which are key factors in the development of type 2 diabetes.
Risks of Phthalates in Food
Phthalates can also accumulate in food and beverages through the food production chain and the release of packaging materials.
A recent review has shown that phthalates can be found in high concentrations in products such as soft drinks, mineral water, wine, oil, and ready-to-eat meals.
However, due to their different physical and chemical properties, the impact of phthalates in food and beverage products is still under debate.
Phthalates and Type 2 Diabetes
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism in February 2023 looked into the association between phthalates and type 2 diabetes in midlife women.
The researchers analyzed 6-year data from 1308 women who were involved in the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (the SWAN study).
When they looked at the levels of 11 different phthalate metabolites present in urine samples, they found an interesting pattern.
White women with higher levels of certain high-molecular-weight phthalate metabolites had a 30% to 63% higher incidence of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those with lower levels.
However, this association was not seen in Black or Asian women.
Keep in mind, these results should be interpreted with caution as they only show a correlation, not causation. Further research is needed to determine if phthalates directly cause type 2 diabetes or if other factors are involved.
It’s also not entirely clear why the impact appears to vary based on race and ethnicity.
Reducing Your Risk
Research on the health risks of phthalates is still ongoing, but until more is known, there are some steps you can take to reduce your exposure.
Here are some tips to help you minimize your phthalate exposure:
- Read product labels and avoid products containing phthalates.
- Avoid using plastic food containers, especially for hot foods and liquids.
- Use glass or stainless steel containers for food storage
- Avoid using plastic wrap for food storage.
- Choose personal care products that are phthalate-free.
- Wash your hands frequently, especially after using personal care products.
Although it may not be currently possible to completely avoid exposure to phthalates, being mindful of the potential risks involved is a good step in the right direction.