What’s a toxic colorless chemical doing in my house and how is it harming Puget Sound?
Over 80,000 synthetic chemicals are used in products from shower curtains and laundry detergent to vinyl flooring and shampoo. It’s well known that toxic chemicals pose a major threat to the health of Puget Sound. But how do they get from products in our homes to water and wildlife? Martha Baskin looks at some of the mysterious pathways for phthalates (pronounced thalates), a family of chemicals that causes problems with male reproductive development and the survival and reproduction of aquatic organisms.
You might call the colorless liquid the uninvited guest. First it shows up unexpectedly in your home. Then when it leaves, it’s not really gone at all because it’s taken up permanent residence in the waters of Puget Sound. Phthalates, a colorless but toxic chemical, are found in hundreds of everyday products, vinyl flooring, food packaging, shampoo, laundry detergent, wall paper and shower curtains.
“Because PVC vinyl is by nature a hard plastic, in order to make a shower curtain out of it you need to add a plasticizer and typically what’s used are phthalates,” says Erika Schreder, staff scientist with the Washington Toxics Coalition. She says phthalates can make up to 50% of a shower curtain’s weight. Schreder is co-author of the study, “Down the Drain, How Everyday Products Are Polluting Puget Sound.”
Added to plastics in order to make them flexible, phthalates literally go down the drain from households, industry or as runoff from hard surfaces. Eventually they make their way to a sewage treatment plant, but says Schreder, “they’re not completely removed and they end up getting dumped into the Sound.”
The study looked at homes in six geographic areas of Puget Sound and found phthalates in the dust and laundry water in all of them.
Phthalates leach from household products, are absorbed by dust and cling to clothing.
“When we looked at the numbers, we found that it could contribute about 17% of the total load of phthalates to Puget Sound just by this one pathway of dust clinging to our clothes and getting washed down the drain,” Schreder says.
The phthalate called DEHP, widespread in the environment, was measured at levels high enough to exceed standards at 15 sewage treatment plants. Adverse health concerns include problems with human male reproductive development and the survival and reproduction of aquatic organisms.
Phthalates adhere to mud and have been found in 13 federal Superfund sites in Puget Sound.
Even low concentrations of phthalates, says Jim Meador, Aquatic Toxicologist with NOAA Fisheries, can disrupt the metabolism of juvenile fish, inhibiting their growth.
“It’s absolutely critical that they attain a certain size and robustness to be healthy in the environment and avoid predators,” Meador says. “Everything is so finely tuned in critters.”
Meador focuses on salmon. Juveniles often begin life in estuaries such as Puget Sound. “And a lot of our estuaries are contaminated. They’re in industrial areas so they’re there for several weeks and they can accumulate these compounds which can affect them throughout the rest of their life,” Meador says. Some metabolic disruptors stimulate appetite at the wrong time. “They’re feeding at the wrong time. Everything is inappropriate for what they’ve been evolving for tens of thousands of years to go through this normal cycle of coming out into the ocean, the migration, being in the ocean and then growing to a different size and coming back.”
A huge amount of research has been conducted on many chemicals, says Meador, but very little on phthalates: “It’s kind of one of the orphans that’s been forgotten about and people are starting to say we need more information.”
Meador last week began a new lab experiment to see how young salmon respond to specific doses of di-ethylhexyl phthalate, one of the most common.
“We have concentrations in the environment but we don’t know how bad those are. We’re basically looking for thresholds, the cause effects that we think will affect the population, which is kind of the whole big picture.”
Seventh Generation detergent doesn’t contain a toxic chemical called phthalates but this toy plastic dinosaur and liquid Tide laundry detergent displayed do, according to Washington Toxics Coalition. At laundry time, phthalates go down drains and some eventually reach Puget Sound. (File photo: Grant M. Haller)
There are consumer alternatives. See alternativeconsumer.com. PEVA shower curtains are chemical- free. Fragrance-free products of any kind are phthalate-free because phthalates are the chemicals that hold the fragrance. Companies that disclose ingredients in their products, like Seventh Generation, says the Washington Toxic Coalition’s Schreder, are also good bets.
In the US, full disclosure is not a legal requirement. But things may change. Consumer and non-profit pressure and a law in Europe are turning the tide.
Heather Trim is toxics manager at People for Puget Sound and co-author of the study, “Down the Drain, How Everyday Products are Polluting Puget Sound.”
“We’d love to have the regulation changed at the state and national level just like they’re doing in Europe,” Trim says. In 2007 a European law called REACH was enacted to regulate the safe use of chemicals. “So this is a big deal because in the US we export a lot of products to Europe and what we’re finding is that there’s, say, a shampoo or a mousse — the same exact brand and name and everything — was being sold with one formulation in the US and a different one in Europe.”
Trim and allies want to see the same law in the US. So far the effort has failed, but there’s been some progress. The Children’s Safe Product Act sets strict standards for phthalates, lead and cadmium in children’s toys. Washington state is phasing out copper in brake pads and in boat paint. And the $50 billion US cosmetics industry, responding to a campaign called safecosmetics.org, has removed dibutyl phthalate from nail polish. But as those working to limit the use of toxic chemicals will tell you, there’s still a long way to go.
Green Acre Radio is brought to you with support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby. From the studios of Jack Straw Productions and KBCS. Green Acre Radio airs on KBCS at 4:45pm on Thursdays & 7:45 am & 2 pm on Fridays.