Plastic is all around us, and so is the effect of that plastic. Those of you who are as old as me will remember the early plastics: they were brittle and unbending. Now modern plastics are soft and pliable, and this is largely down to a group of chemicals called phthalates. (Improbable as it seems I have spelt this correctly!)
The addition of phthalates to plastic has increased the ways in which plastics can be used, but it has also increased our exposure to the phthalates in the plastic - the phthalates are able to migrate out of the plastic and into drink and food held in plastic containers. Children's plastic toys are often sucked by young babies, giving rise to concerns about this early exposure.
Phthalates have given us a whole new lot of uses for plastics. They may also be giving us a whole lot of problems. Phthalates have been linked to reproductive defects, lowered sperm counts, early puberty and cancer; they are known as hormone-disrupters because they have been shown to disrupt the normal levels of some hormones.
A report by the US National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) gives real cause for concern. It commissioned an independent laboratory to carry out tests on 8 articles used by babies (teethers, bath toys, etc.). All of them were labelled as phthalate-free, but 6 of the 8 showed detectable levels of phthalates. Manufacturers have responded that the levels are too low to be of concern, but our understanding of what happens to these chemicals in the body is not extensive. What we do know suggests there is no room for complacency.