These Chemicals Disrupt the Sexual Development of Children — and They’re Everywhere

The EPA said that it would begin monitoring for DINP, a phthalate that causes birth defects and cancer, more than 20 years ago. It still hasn’t.

Glass baby bottles on display at store on April 20, 2007, in Tustin, Calif.
Glass baby bottles on display at store on April 20, 2007, in Tustin, Calif. Their retail sales have surged as reports indicate that chemicals can leach from plastic bottles. Photo: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Laurie Valeriano first heard about DINP decades ago when she was planning to start a family. An environmental activist, she was working on plastics at the time. “I started to worry about the chemicals that come out of all these plastics,” she said recently. DINP, one of a group of chemicals called phthalates that makes plastic more pliable, was one of them. It was already clear that DINP could cause cancer and interfere with hormonal functioning. But no one knew how much of the chemical was emitted into the environment — or where. So in February 2000, Valeriano and her employer, the Washington Toxics Coalition, asked the Environmental Protection Agency to add DINP to the list of chemicals it monitors through a nationwide program called the Toxics Release Inventory.

Just seven months later, Valeriano, who was by then pregnant with her first child, got what felt at the time like a significant victory: The EPA announced that it planned to grant the group’s request and issued a proposed rule that would add DINP to the toxics inventory. Once the rule was finalized, companies would have to report their DINP emissions to the public database, and communities living nearby would know how much of the chemical was being released into their surroundings. In the federal register, the agency noted the science driving its decision: “The toxicity data clearly indicates that DINP is known to cause or can reasonably be anticipated to cause cancer and other serious or irreversible chronic liver, kidney, and developmental toxicity in humans.”

Yet more than 20 years later, the EPA has yet to make good on its promise to add DINP to the list of chemicals. It never finalized the rule, and in the intervening years, companies have continued to churn out DINP and other chemicals in its class in astounding amounts without disclosing how much individual plants make and emit. Between 2012 and 2015, as much as 500 million pounds of DINP was made or imported each year, according to the most recent numbers available from the EPA. Companies add DINP to hundreds of products in place of another phthalate called DEHP that is being phased out because it causes cancer, birth defects, and reproductive difficulties. Over the last decade, blood levels of chemicals the body forms as it breaks down DINP have climbed in the U.S., while those of DEHP have gone down.

Although it has been promoted as a “green alternative” to DEHP, DINP causes many of the same problems as the chemical it so often replaces. In addition to the cancer and hormone disruption that sparked Valeriano’s claim 21 years ago, we now know more about how DINP affects the sexual development of children. It decreases sperm motility, increases malformations of the testes and other organs, and makes boys with relatively high levels of exposure to the chemical more likely to be infertile later in life. Experiments on lab rats also showed that those that were exposed to DINP in the womb had “reproductive malformations” and developed traits usually seen in females, including female-like nipples. DINP has also been linked to high blood pressure and insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes.

In fact, the entire group of phthalates — an estimated half-billion pounds of which are made and used in the U.S. each year — seem to cause a similar constellation of health problems. Although not every chemical has the same profile, most of the ones that have been studied appear to damage the development of the male reproductive system. Studies of various phthalates have shown them to cause birth defects, fertility problems in people who can become pregnant, miscarriage, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and liver cancer. Exposure to the chemicals in the womb or early childhood has also been linked to learning, attention, and behavior problems, lower IQ, memory problems, and autism, rates of which have recently reached record highs.

Toy of the company American Plastic Toys Inc are on display during the annual New York Toy Fair, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on February 16 in New York City. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Plastic toys are displayed during an annual toy fair in New York on Feb. 16, 2019.

Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

The Lawsuits

Yet efforts to compel the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration to limit phthalate exposure have been stuck in limbo for years, as the companies that make the chemicals continue to insist that they’re safe. While the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Congress banned the use of eight phthalates in children’s toys, the Food and Drug Administration still allows those same chemicals to be used in food production. Now environmental groups are pushing back, calling on the courts to force both agencies to finally act on their years-old promises to regulate the chemicals.

In September, Earthjustice sued the EPA on behalf of communities living near facilities that import or manufacture large amounts of DINP in an effort to force the agency to finally add the chemical to the Toxics Release Inventory. The legal action comes as the EPA is beginning an assessment of DINP, which cannot be done properly without the emissions information, according to Katherine O’Brien, the Earthjustice attorney handling the case.

“We are very concerned about how EPA is going to identify the fenceline communities and do a lawful and comprehensive risk evaluation without TRI data,” said O’Brien. “The idea that the manufacturers can get in there by requesting a risk evaluation before EPA has the data that really we believe are necessary to support that is very troubling.”

An EPA spokesperson said that the agency was unable to comment on the DINP lawsuit because it is under active litigation.

Meanwhile, on December 7, Earthjustice sued the FDA on behalf of the Center for Food Safety, the Learning Disabilities Association of America, the Environmental Defense Fund, and other environmental groups, demanding that the agency take action on phthalates. This, too, is a repeated request. In 2016, the groups asked the agency to revoke its approval of 28 phthalates used in food packaging and processing materials, such as conveyor belts, tubing used in dairies, and gloves used by workers in food processing facilities and restaurant kitchens. But the FDA has yet to act on the 2016 petition.

The suit notes that “ingestion of food and drinks contaminated by phthalates is the primary way that most people in the United States — including children — are exposed to most phthalates” and asks the court to remedy the FDA’s “years-long unreasonable delay” and make the the agency take action on its 2016 petition within 60 days.

An FDA spokesperson said that the agency does not comment on active litigation.

A nurse clamps a medical tube in an exam room at Perry Memorial Hospital in Princeton, Illinois, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. Almost eight months after President Donald Trump took office and promised to immediately repeal Obamacare, Republican senators are instead developing a small package of changes to help the health law rather than end it. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A nurse clamps a medical tube in an exam room at a hospital in Princeton, Ill., on Sept. 1, 2017.

Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Everywhere Chemicals

Exposure to phthalates is practically unavoidable. The chemicals easily leach out of products, which helps explain how they can move so easily from equipment into processed food, such as instant macaroni and cheese and fast food, and why virtually all Americans — including newborns — have some phthalates in their blood. In addition to their role as “plasticizers,” phthalates are added to fragrances to make them linger in the air and can be found in shoes, medical tubing, insulation, shower curtains, garden hoses, car interiors, fabrics, floor coverings, building materials, playground and sports equipment, cleaning products, ink, electronics, fabrics, and personal care products.

“We have the forever chemicals, and now we have the everywhere chemicals,” said Maricel Maffini, a researcher who has studied endocrine-disrupting chemicals for 15 years, said of phthalates. “The exposure is constant.”

“We have the forever chemicals, and now we have the everywhere chemicals. The exposure is constant.”

Although everyone is exposed, people of color tend to have the highest levels of the chemicals. According to the National Biomonitoring Program, Black, Hispanic, and Asian people in the U.S. had higher levels than white people for 9 out of 10 phthalates for which data was reported.

Patients also appear to be particularly vulnerable because phthalates can leach from IV bags and medical tubing into blood. Infants have been shown to be exposed while hospitalized in neonatal intensive care units. According to a recent study, DEHP increased the likelihood of drug resistance and relapse in breast cancer patients.

Because the effects of the chemicals can be additive, the European Food Safety Authority recently decided to regulate DINP and DEHP together, setting a maximum exposure level for a group of four phthalates. Yet in the U.S., phthalates have simply been swapped out for one another in manufacturing for years.

The Stealth Phthalate

While the regulatory agencies have yet to catch up with DINP, more phthalates have been introduced, including DPHP, a compound Mike Belliveau refers to as the “stealth phthalate.”

“It’s just not regulated at all,” said Belliveau, executive director of the environmental group Defend Our Health, who has been tracking phthalates for decades. “When we first started asking for it to be analyzed five years ago, the labs didn’t even have the reference standard in stock.”

While the state of California has listed six phthalates, including DINP, under Proposition 65, which warns of the dangers of chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm, it has no listing for DPHP. Nor has the European Chemical Agency yet regulated DPHP, although it is assessing the chemical as a potential endocrine disruptor.

“When we first started asking for it to be analyzed five years ago, the labs didn’t even have the reference standards in stock.”

DPHP also has yet to undergo any formal review or approval from the EPA or FDA. Although it has not been widely studied, initial animal experiments show that it is similarly toxic to other phthalates — causing decreased weight, lesions on the liver, and shrinking of the thyroid gland. Nevertheless, DPHP’s use is on the increase.

Companies that make phthalates — along with the American Chemistry Council, which represents them — have insisted for years that the chemicals pose no threat. ExxonMobil, one of the manufacturers of phthalates, has lobbied hard against the ban on the use of the chemicals in toys. Despite the mounting evidence, the company insisted to both the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Congress that phthalates were safe for children. ExxonMobil and other manufacturers in the American Chemistry Council have also pushed to slow or stop regulation of phthalates at the EPA.

In response to questions for this article, ExxonMobil spokesperson Todd Spitler wrote in an email that “DINP is a safe and critical plasticizer used and broadly found in a large variety of construction, automotive and healthcare products that consumers depend on every day.” Spitler also wrote, “As a manufacturer of DINP, we take stringent precautions to protect the safety and health of our employees, customers, the public, as well as the environment.”

While fighting to be able to continue making the chemicals behind the scenes, companies appear reluctant to be publicly linked to phthalates or admit how much they make or use. Every one of the 30 companies mentioned in the EPA’s most recent use report for DINP declined to disclose how much they use or make, claiming that the amounts are confidential business information. Nevertheless, the use report is clear that DINP is produced at several sites, including a BASF plant in Pasadena, Texas; an Arkema plant in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin; a Teknor Apex plant in Brownsville, Tennessee; and a Vectra Corp. plant in Franklin, Pennsylvania.

ExxonMobil also produces DINP at its plant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, though it declares the very name of its company confidential in the EPA document. (Although the parent company is listed as “CBI,” the site gives the address of the ExxonMobil plant.) While it is illegal to claim a company name as confidential, companies often do it in an effort to obscure their responsibility, according to Belliveau. “They just want to hide the ball,” he said.

According to an EPA spokesperson, ExxonMobil withdrew its claim that the company name was CBI, but did so after the most recent use report was released in 2016.

Such reporting shenanigans make it impossible for people living near plants to know if they might be exposed to additional phthalates from local contamination in their environment, in addition to whatever amount they get simply from living amid countless products that contain them. If Earthjustice prevails in its suit, people living near the plants that produce DINP will have more information soon, at least about that one chemical. The EPA and Earthjustice are now discussing a possible settlement.

For Valeriano, who filed the request to the EPA to add DINP to the Toxics Release Inventory 21 years ago, a victory would be bittersweet. While she and other environmentalists have been waiting for the EPA to act, Valeriano went on to have three children — all of whom are now adults. “During that time, we have all had continued ongoing exposures,” she said. “It’s way past time to act.”

Update: December 7, 2021, 3:58 ET

This article has been updated with comments from the EPA and the FDA.

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