By on September 25, 2006

81taint2222.jpgIt’s been many years since the media entertained spurious claims about the toxicity of automotive plastics. Guess what? They’re at it again; ready to alert the world to the “dangers” of the plasticizers that make dashboards supple and vinyl pliable. Both ABC’s The View and National Geographic Magazine (October 2006) took major shots at these chemicals, known collectively as phthalate esters. Without these plastics, every car interior would have all the allure and comfort of an up-armored military spec Humvee.

Even before David Ewan Duncan’s “The Pollution Within” gets into high gear, the National Geographic’s subhead links automotive plastics and toxicity: “Thanks to modern chemistry… SUVs hit 60 in six seconds. But such convenience has a price: Chemicals that suffuse modern life– from well known toxins to newer compounds with unknown effects– are building up in our bodies and sometimes staying there for years.” In the main piece, Duncan carefully avoids calling phthalates toxins. They’re “chemicals of concern.” But the implication is clear: phthalates are poisonous.

Phthalates are found in a wide range of everyday products: shampoo bottles, medical equipment, toys, food wrap, cosmetics, water bottles and [woo hoo!] sex toys. When plastics get hot, the phthalates leech out. The haze that films the inside of our windshields consists of phthalates that have “evaporated” out of interior plastics and collected on the glass. Long-term phthalate loss accounts for dashboards becoming increasingly brittle and splitting. Phthalates also account for new car smell as well as the funny taste of water from plastic bottles left in the sun.

The human body absorbs phthalates through the skin, orally or through the lungs. The chemicals don't stay inside us for long; our bodies break them down and pass them out within a few hours or a couple of days. Nor do the chemicals build up in our body tissues. Long term exposure is considered safe; the plastics industry has used them since the ‘20’s without any indication (i.e. lawsuit) that they cause acute or chronic illness.

In the late ‘90’s, these plasticizers came under fire for a myriad of alleged health concerns. Phthalates were accused of being estrogenic and suspected of causing cancer. The European Union reacted to the anti-phthalate hysteria by banning some phthalate-infused plastics from children’s toys. Once again, the chemicals are under the preventative health industry’s microscope.

Meanwhile, allegations that phthalates mimic estrogen, the female hormone, offer some curious possibilities. Do cars with more plastics yield more sensitive drivers? Indeed, if phthalate-laden interiors were used more, would there be less road rage? Would women of child bearing age become more fertile? Would menopausal women riding in cars experience less severe hot flashes? And, if the use of phthalates were banned for use in autos, would the highway safety devolve under an assault of testosterone-crazed drivers?

I jest. In fact, the research conclusions prompting the estrogen claim are deeply flawed. Absurdly large doses of phthalates were administered through the skin to rats, resulting in some birth defects (e.g. male offspring with more than two nipples.) While this result has been duplicated in other rodent studies, it’s never been replicated in animals that more closely resemble humans. (Human skin is known to be more resistant to chemical absorption than rats’.) Furthermore, humans are exposed to much higher levels of estrogen-mimicking chemicals from other sources, including wheat, soybeans, potatoes, carrots, apples and coffee. Obviously, no one is proposing banning any of these foodstuffs.

Dr. Scott D. Phillips of the University of Colorado’s Division of Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “This mischaracterization of the scientific evidence [regarding phthalate exposure] reflects a lack of understanding of basic toxicological principles… We put chemical substances into our bodies daily that can cause harmful effects in animals. It is the dose that differentiates medicines from poisons.” Aspirin in low doses is a miracle drug – a near-panacea. Yet, many a desperate person has ended their own life by ingesting sufficient quantities aspirin. A British study of infants exposed to phthalates through milk fed through plastic containers found no risk, even when applying the European Union’s 100-fold safety margin.

The belief that phthalates cause cancer is wrong.  The suspect phthalate, known as DEHP, has been cleared by scores of peer-reviews and research studies. The study used as the basis for this claim is now viewed as “junk science” and the use of these plastics in toys, medical equipment or cars is deemed to pose no human health risk.

While there are many chemicals, natural and synthetic, that merit careful concern, forty years of extensive research indicates that phthalates are not among them. Nonetheless, a lie repeated often enough takes on the ring of truth. And public policy based on such distortions could profoundly affect our cars’ comfort.  So enjoy sitting in your car. Breathe deeply. Caress the soft plastics. And put your mind at ease.

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35 Comments on “Can You Say Phthalates?...”

  • avatar

    It’s just too bad that Jeep didn’t put more phthalates into the plastic dashboard of my Cherokee. I’d be a less aggressive driver and might even sprout a third nipple to boot!

    BTW, nice ad layout. I didn’t even notice them the first time that I read the article.

  • avatar

    Working in the water industry, I see psuedo-science constantly. Both from water treatment device purveyors trying to scare people into buying their miracle device and from the media trying to just scare people it seems. The recent reduction of the allowable level of arsenic in water to 10 parts per billion on a national level is a prime example of science run amok. Based on the increased incidence of cancer in lab rats at much higher levels they extrapolated that reducing the maximum allowable level of arsenic from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion would reduce the number of cancer cases nationally by 15 to 20 and the number of deaths by 7 or 8. There are litterally tens of millions of diagnosed cases of cancer and millions of deaths attributable to cancer each year, to put these single digit numbers in perspective. The cost to reduce the level of arsenic in water below 10 ppb? By conservative estimates $2 to $3 billion dollars annually. Gee, I wonder if there is anything else that money could be spent on that might have a greater effect on reducing death and improving the quality of life? Better safer roads for instance? Increased law enforcement, maybe?

    Even worse was the propaganda movie Erin Brokovich. Because of this movie, legislatures around the country were pressured into mandating a maximum allowable level of hexavalent chromium in water. While hexavalent chromium has been shown to be harmful if inhaled, all lab studies and epidemiological studies show no effect when ingested. The presumption (based on the facts of chemical reactions) is that the hexavalent chromium is converted into trivalent chromium, a trace mineral necessary for metabolism, by stomach acids. But, lets not let facts or science get in the way of new regulations.

  • avatar
    Joe ShpoilShport

    No, I can’t.

  • avatar

    Don’t worry, tri-val chromium is in the works as the next great threat.

    Technically silica is a carcinogen. Time to ban beaches, rocks, and dust. I understand 100% about psuedo-science run amok.

    But back to cars, trying to quantify all the dangers of driving is a self-defeating task. We surround ourselves with 5000 pounds of metal and glass sitting on top of 18 gallons of potentialy explosive fuel. We drive at velocities which impart enough momentum to throw us through the air for several hundred feet upon rapid deceleration. And we constantly divert our attention from the road with cell phones, satelite radios, and DVD players. Worrying about potential hazards from massive overquantities of plasticizers we barely come into contact with doesn’t seem to be the best use of our limited safety engineering dollars.

    There are no poisonous chemicals. There are hazardous levels for all chemicals.

  • avatar

    If enjoying new car smell is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

  • avatar

    I like this quote.

    “New rubber mats may emit a naturally occurring-odor. We recommend washing mats with a light detergent prior to installation”

  • avatar

    Smells like… victory.

  • avatar

    Boy the news just loves scaring the crap out of us don’t they.

    I suppose that makes for better tv and ratings than something like say an Iraqi civil war, or losing ground in Afghanistan.

    I once worked on a news program. Seeing how it is done really freaked me out. I won’t watch the news anymore after that.

  • avatar

    OK, then that means that all those GM interiors that have become knee-jerk whipping boys for the automotive media are actually politically-correct and good for you: So much for the old crap about too much hard plastic.

    Meanwhile Audi’s should be banned, I guess.

    Deranged Few M/C

  • avatar

    If a car had an accident and all the phthalates died, but there was no one there to smell them, would anybody care?

  • avatar

    From the highly respected peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, published by the National Institutes of Health (scroll down). They had a bunch more articles on other effects of phthalates. While I would doubt that cars would be a major source of this–as a gut reaction, I’d worry more about plastic beverage bottles–and while I can well imagine that Nat’l Geog and ABC may be hyping this well beyond what it merits, this stuff obviously isn’t harmless.

    Exposure to Phthalates Commonplace in Pregnant Women; May Shorten Duration of Pregnancy by One Week
    Two Studies in Environmental Health Perspectives Find Impact from Ubiquitous Chemical

    [RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC] Pregnant women appear to be routinely exposed to phthalates, a class of common chemical additives, and that exposure is associated with a shortened duration of pregnancy, according to two studies published today in the November issue of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP). One of today’s studies indicates for the first time that pregnant women may be exposed to phthalates by inhalation, while the other study finds that infants of a group of exposed women were born more than one week earlier than those of nonexposed women.

    Phthalates are widely used in plastic products such as food containers and wraps to add flexibility. They are also used in skin softeners and moisturizers, nail polishes, insect repellants, shower curtains, hairsprays, building products, and more. Because phthalates leach out of these products, they’ve become a ubiquitous environmental contaminant.

    The first study, of air samples and urine samples collected from pregnant women in New York City and Krakow, Poland, analyzed five different phthalates, including DBP, DEP, DIBP, DEHP, and BBzP. This team found phthalate exposure in all of the urine samples of the 60 women studied and in all of the air samples.

    “Inhalation appears to be a significant route of exposure, given the high correlations between air and urine measures,” the authors of the exposure study write. “This counters the general belief that ingestion of contaminated food products is the most significant exposure pathway and suggests that inhalation and possibly dermal absorption may also be determining a woman’s exposure.”

    The second study, of cord blood from 84 infants born consecutively at a hospital in Brindisi, Italy, specifically studied exposure to DEHP and its main metabolite, MEHP. This team found that 88% of the infants had been exposed in the womb to this commonly used phthalate and that average gestational age decreased from 39.35 weeks to 38.16 weeks in those exposed.

    (to see the rest of this article go to

  • avatar

    I would add that if someone could duplicate the new car smell of my parents’ ’57 Chevy, I’d have a hard time restraining myself from buying any car with that particular version of new car smell, phthalates or not. I was four. I can still conjure it up and get a giant wave of nostalgia.

  • avatar
    Joe C.

    nathaniel – “Breaking News” is a phrase used more often with less meaning than ever in local TV news, especially during Sweeps months. The use of the phrase has been debated in TV shoptalk websites. Regardless, I’m quite sure we’ll next hear it often in November.

    Interesting read: Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear.” The book’s conclusion is that it’s in the media’s and in the government’s best interests to keep us shaking. The theory is that it became necessary to find new things to fear, once the Soviet Union fell and we were no longer afraid of a nuclear winter.

    Plastics in cars giving off fumes? If you’re worried, buy a convertible or a sunroof.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    Joe C: Crichton also wrote about talking albino apes.

    More importantly, ALL of the ascertations in his book have been shot down again and again and again by actual scientists.

    For instance, we’re something like 0.2 degrees C away from the highest annual temperature the earth has had in 1,000,000 years.

    I know, I know — Crichton said that in the 70s people were worried about global cooling, so all this is cyclical.

    If you are into million year cycles.

  • avatar
    Joe C.

    Jonny – Look, it is a novel. His subject for discussion is global warming, and he “works” the statistics to serve his story. But, I think the bigger issue is how we are fed information.

    Fear sells newspapers, increases viewership, listenership, and hits on Drudge. It keeps politicians in power (or out, depending on the polls). It keeps lots of lawyers employed.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    Joe C:

    They are growing olives in England.

    Pull thy head out.

  • avatar
    Joe C.

    Sorry, Jonny, I won’t get baited into an argument over global warming. but, next time you hear “Breaking News,” let me know if you think the story could have waited until later in the newscast.

    I worked for 10 years for a broadcast services (including news) company. The President told all of his gathered Directors (I was one): “You will never ever pick up a newspaper with the headline, ‘There’s No News Today.\'”

    He was a car salesman when he started the company and sold it to CBS for $987 Million.

  • avatar

    If you think phthalates are bad, just wait until you hear about Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO). It’s all around us and there’s nothing we can do about it. I even found some in my backyard this morning. According to the web site, the dangers of DHMO include:

    Death due to accidental inhalation of DHMO, even in small quantities.

    Prolonged exposure to solid DHMO causes severe tissue damage.

    Excessive ingestion produces a number of unpleasant though not typically life-threatening side-effects.

    DHMO is a major component of acid rain.

    Gaseous DHMO can cause severe burns.

    Contributes to soil erosion.

    Leads to corrosion and oxidation of many metals.

    Contamination of electrical systems often causes short-circuits.

    Exposure decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes.

    Found in biopsies of pre-cancerous tumors and lesions.

    Often associated with killer cyclones in the U.S. Midwest and elsewhere.

    Thermal variations in DHMO are a suspected contributor to the El Nino weather effect.

  • avatar
    Brian E

    I’m much, much more concerned about genetically modified interior plastics. GM interiors are bad for you!

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    David Holzman,

    Both of my children were born past due. Maybe my poor uncomfortable wife should have spent some time breathing deeply in our car to speed things up a bit.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Damn. I was going to barbeque the Honda for dinner.

  • avatar


    Sounds like something from Penn & Teller’s show Bullsh!t from a couple of years back. Care to sign a petition?

  • avatar

    There are any number of things that can kill us. So what? We don’t live in a perfect world. Everything we do has risk, and every choice we make has advantages and disadvantages.

    Having said that, let me recommend a book to everybody here. It’s not a dry, partisan book on global warming. In fact, it’s a thriller, written by Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and a bunch of other page turners. It’s called “State of Fear” and in it, he addresses the underlying reasons that we all seem to careen from one danger to the next. It’s worth a read. Crichton backs it up with extensive footnotes. By the end of the book, you may question much of what passes for “accepted science” in the mainstream press. Especially since something like this ABC/National Geographic thing can easily snowball into calls for legislation that will screw up perfectly good materials that make cars better, it’s worth knowing what’s really motivating campaigns like these.

  • avatar

    “Joe C:

    They are growing olives in England.

    Pull thy head out.

    Admittedly, I am not a Medieval History scholar, but I did take a course in college. You can let me know when they are growing wine grapes in Greenland, and I’ll believe that the temperatures are the highest they’ve been in 1,000,000 years. Try reading the translated writings of the viking explorers for an interesting description of places like Iceland, Greenland, and for that matter England. Things were apparently much warmer 1300 years ago than they are now.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    David Holzman,

    I read the two studies that you referred to. My flippant comment above notwithstanding, these are my thoughts:

    The first study confirmed what other studies previously found: that humans, pregnant or otherwise, can absorb phthalates through inhalation. This study presents no evidence of harm, only the presence of the chemicals.

    The second study from Italy is potentially more incriminating. But, before we work ourselves into a tizzy, consider the following:

    1. The study is of 84 healthy babies (i.e. zero mortality). Other than birth weight and gestational age at birth no other medical information is provided to suggest that any of the infants were anything other than fully healthy.

    2. The study finds no relationship between DEHP and premature birth.

    3. The authors found a statistically significant difference between MEHP (one of the molecules that DEHP breaks down into) and early birth. 54 of the infants (64% of the total) had MEHP in their umbilical cord blood. So, if MEHP causes babies to be born 1 week early and 64% of all babies have it should we not be seeing widespread premature births? Phthalates have only been in use since the 1920’s but only became utilized on a widespread basis after WWII. As such, we should see significant shift in gestational duration for the shorter among children born in industrialized nations. I mean, you can’t hide 64% of births.

    4. One of the tests of good research is whether it can be replicated. Remember the whole Cold Fusion thing at the University of Utah? Researchers Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed to have measured the creation of energy from a fusion reaction. The press had a field day proclaiming that all of our energy woes would be cured. But then no one else could replicate the experiment. Now these guys are ignominious pariahs and the world is still pumping its energy from a hole in the ground in Saudi Arabia. In my quick Internet survey of this study I did not see any evidence that this study has been replicated. Maybe it has, but I did not find it.

    5. The authors claimed, “No statistically significant differences in other maternal and/or fetal factors potentially affecting pregnancy duration were present in our population.” Okay. So, what other maternal and/or fetal factors did they eliminate/control for? I don’t know the answer to this question because it is not disclosed in the paper. I assume they controlled for the age of the mothers, the number of prior pregnancies the mother has had, diet, blood type, race, quality of prenatal care, whether the mothers smoked, drank excessive amounts of coffee, or had alcohol/drug dependency issues, etc, etc, etc. In fact, they do not even tell us whether any other phthalates were present in their subjects. There are innumerable variables that could influence newborn health. A blanket statement that they covered everything other than the presence of phthalates is just not enough. Critical readers of the study must be able to evaluate these controls before concluding that this study is credible.

    6. Only 10 of the 84 infants were found to be free of DEHP or its corresponding monoester, MEHP. A control group of only 10 is generally not considered to be statistically reliable sample population. Perhaps for this reason the authors concede that this study is not to be regarded as conclusive, but is a call for more research to be done. In their words, “The potential toxic effects of the observed prenatal exposure to phthalates in human newborns remain unknown to date.” In other words, despite all of the research that has been done on phthalates no one has been able to specifically identify them as unhealthful. And, “it is conceivable that prenatal and postnatal exposures may have synergistic and cumulative actions in producing adverse neonatal effects.” No conclusions are stated for certain.

  • avatar

    “Thay-lates.” Easy.

    More Chicken Little nonsense. And am I the only one who doesn’t particularly like new car smell? I’d gladly give up some soft plastics to avoid the headaches and Windex-proof window film.

  • avatar

    William C Montgomery:
    September 25th, 2006 at 9:54 pm
    David Holzman,
    Both of my children were born past due. Maybe my poor uncomfortable wife should have spent some time breathing deeply in our car to speed things up a bit.

    WCM: I was born a couple of weeks early. My brother was born even earlier than I was. I blame it on the Studebaker.

  • avatar

    September 26th, 2006 at 2:01 am
    Admittedly, I am not a Medieval History scholar, but I did take a course in college. You can let me know when they are growing wine grapes in Greenland, and I’ll believe that the temperatures are the highest they’ve been in 1,000,000 years. Try reading the translated writings of the viking explorers for an interesting description of places like Iceland, Greenland, and for that matter England. Things were apparently much warmer 1300 years ago than they are now.

    The settlement of Greenland, around 980 AD, was led by Eric the Red, who had been banished from Iceland (and I think Norway before that, but I’m not sure). The stuff he said about Greenland, and the name itself, was a bunch of PR. As for global heating, I don’t know what you haven’t been reading, but spring comes about a week earlier to Alaska than it used to, the snows of Kilamanjaro are melting and it probably won’t have any snow cap in another 20 years, glaciers are melting all over the world, etc.

    WCM: I agree with most of your points in your last comment, and I’m not exactly quaking in my boots here about phthalates. In the universe of threats to human life and limb, and to the planet, they are pretty low on the list, at least until some more damning info comes along, and I am not holding my breath. I thought a friend of mine had recently written something damning about phthalates in Science News, but I couldn’t find it, but in the heat of the moment, I went to EPH, that sent what I found. If I’d waited an hour, I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

  • avatar

    And the galciers on Mount Rainier are growing (at least over the past 40 years, though they are smaller than they were 100 years ago). I’m not denying a general increase in temperatures over the past 50 to 100 years; however, to say that global warming is caused by human pollution and is not a natural phenomena, that has not been proven or even shown to be likely. You can ignore historical anecdotal evidence and choose to believe recent anecdotal evidence if that is what you wish to do, but it does not constitute proof. If you want to go back millions of years, there is ample archeological evidence that the earth was much warmer (and wetter) when dinosaurs existed. It’s almost laughable that the discovery of additional wooly mamoths and the discovery of a mummified human body are given as evidence of a historical increase in global temperatures as glaciers recede. How did those mamoths and that man come to die in those places? Maybe because thousands of years ago it was warmer there? Maybe a general cooling trend (ice age) covered their remains in ice that is now melting?

    If you want something immediate and demonstrably harmful to the environment and human health look at the lack of clean water in Africa, Asia, and South America. Money spent on bringing basic sanitation and a clean reliable supply of water to these people would not only prevent millions of deaths due to water borne disease every year, but would also raise the general standard of living by reducing the amount of work and time necessary just to haul 20 gallons of water to the house from a community watering spot (surface water or well) each day.

  • avatar


    It is certainly true that there are natural climatic cycles. But it is also absolutely true that human activity is also having a big impact on climate. For example, there is a paper on this in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world’s leading peer-reviewed science journals.

    Furthermore, if global heating is not curtailed, it will kill much of the world. For one thing, just 3 additional degrees of warming will send agriculture into a tailspin, according to John Holdren at Harvard’s Kennedy School, one of the leading thinkers on global heating. And if the current rate of emissions were to continue, the earth could easily be 20 degrees warmer by the turn of the next century.

    By the way, I haven’t heard of any reputable scientists making the arguments about woolly mammoths and mummified humans.

  • avatar

    Victory Indeed.

  • avatar

    The dose makes the poison.


    The long version according to Wikipedia is: All things are poison and nothing (is) without poison; only the dose makes that a thing is no poison.

    Smart guy and I like his motto, according to Wikipedia:”alterius non sit qui suus esse potest” which means “let no man belong to another that can belong to himself” Clearly a car guy before his time.

    Paracelsus was definitely a Swiss, alchemist, physician, astrologer, and general occultist from the 15th century I can relate to. Too bad he didn’t live to drive a Shelby GT-H. There’s no doubt he would have appreciated it. Europe has fallen so much since the Renaissance.

  • avatar

    Maybe California can solve this problem by suing someone. Anyone.

  • avatar

    I’m not sure of the truth of this story but it is entertaining. Some years ago a GM plant manager was contacted by plant security that a number of assembly workers were in on a day off and playing cards in a breakroom. The security folks asked them to leave but they insisted on staying. They stated that they enjoyed being at the plant even when they were not working. Since this is not behaviour becoming of the typical UAW worker, GM investigated the matter further. It was found that a new paint that was being tested in the paint department emited a fume that was mildly addictive and these workers were unknowingly going for a “fix”. They paint was not used in production for this reason. Maybe this would be the answer to the Big 2.5’s problems – simply “addict” potential buyers to their cars paint fumes.

  • avatar

    I had a class with a nun from Africa, and it was brought up that glaciers on top of Kilimanjaro were melting. Having lived around the mountain, and being familiar with the local culture, she said that she thought the reason why the glaciers were melting was because every year, the locals burn a bunch of trees as a sacrifice to have a good harvest, and in recent years they had been burning more and more trees. Granted, she was no scientist, but I think alot of us are forgetting that just a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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