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Issues of the Environment: The Risks Of Milk Consumption And Other Phthalate Contaminated Products

Tom Ray

Pure and pasteurized milk and dairy products may taste good and be good for you, but the process that brings you this product may be making you sick.  WEMU’s David Fair explores a new study showing the plastics used in processing are contaminating some dairy products with toxic chemicals.  Mike Belliveau is executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center and this week’s guest on "Issues of the Environment."


  • Last year, the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging and Ann Arbor’s Ecology Center, published a study showing that many dairy products contain levels of toxic phthalates. The good new is that non-phthalate inducing equipment is available today. Unfortunately, there is still no meaningful federal regulation for phthalate exposure from food products. As a result, consumers cannot know which products have been processed with less toxic equipment unless the manufacturer chooses to voluntarily disclose this information or independant testing (like that done at the Ecology Center) occurs.
  • This study found that “the most toxic phthalate, DEHP, is still used in some food processing, even though it’s banned in Europe and in children’s toys in the U.S.” 
  • One of the most alarming sources of dietary phthalates is via consumption of dairy products and milk, including many organic versions and even milk from glass bottles that has been collected with phthalate laden equipment.  The mechanized milking process uses a lot of plastic components, and the tubing that the milk passes through is known to infect fresh cow’s milk as it passes through.  Phthalates are highly fat-soluble, and warm milk with it’s high fat content appears to readily collect phthalate residue.
  • Early research suggests phthalate exposure is linked to endocrine disruption leading to male fertility issues, neurodevelopmental disorders, obesity and type II diabetes, breast cancer, and immune dysfunction.  Studying endocrine disruptive chemicals poses research challenges as the time from exposure to notable effect is generally decades long, and many other possible causes of disease are encountered during this period. 
  • In addition to the tubing used to collect cow’s milk, food processing equipment, phthalates, also known as plasticizers, are also used in 1000’s of products including vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes).
  • The CDC reports that nearly every resident of the United States has “measurable levels of many phthalate metabolites” in their bodies. People are exposed to phthalates by eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with containers and products containing phthalates.  This most commonly happens as food products are exposed to phthalates during processing.
  • Regulation of consumer products evolves slowly in the United States. Consumers can try to avoid phthalates by avoiding products with labeled with the “recycle 3”, and by removing food from plastic packaging and storing it in glass, as phthalates continue to leech over time. This step is impractical at best, and Mike Belliveau, executive director at the Environmental Health Strategy Center, urges the dairy industry to phase out all phthalate containing materials. Consumers must also advocate for greater transparency and regulation of endocrine disruption materials in products.

Study from the Ecology Center and the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging

Some Farm Equipment a Source of Toxic Chemicals in Dairy, Study Finds Industry Urged to Finish Phase-Out of Phthalates in Plastic and Rubber

Expert investigators have begun to answer a growing consumer concern: How are industrial chemicals that can harm the healthy development of babies getting into milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products?

A new report [April 2018, but still entirely current] issued today by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging has both bad news and good news for lovers of dairy products.  The report confirms that some plastic and rubber equipment used to milk cows still contains hormone-disrupting chemicals known as ortho-phthalates.  Previous studies have shown that phthalates (pronounced THAL-eights) can escape into fatty foods such as dairy during processing, packaging, and preparation.

The good news, investigators found, is that dairy equipment suppliers already offer many non-phthalate alternatives.  “Shockingly, this report found that the most toxic phthalate, DEHP, is still used in some food processing, even though it’s banned in Europe and in children’s toys in the U.S.,” concluded Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center.  “With the U.S. Food & Drug Administration asleep at the switch, manufacturers must phase out all remaining uses of phthalates in order to protect both consumers and dairy farmers.”

“Parents who buy dairy products and other food for their families want greater assurance of safety,” said Tracy Gregoire, Healthy Children Project Coordinator at the Learning Disabilities Association of America.  “Industrial chemicals that put children at risk for IQ deficits and learning and behavior problems don’t belong in our food supply.”

“Lower income consumers and families of color shouldn’t bear the brunt of phthalate exposure from processed foods like mac and cheese,” said Adrienne Hollis, director of federal policy of WE ACT for Environmental Justice.  “We must ensure food safety and justice for all.”  The report, “Sources of Phthalates in Dairy Farm Equipment,” was researched and written by Pure Strategies, a sustainability consulting firm, which reviewed industry documents and interviewed several experts.

Pure Strategies researched and wrote the report under contract to the public health nonprofit the Environmental Health Strategy Center.  In The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging addition, the Ecology Center, also a public health nonprofit, screened 20 samples of dairy farm equipment for phthalates. For the samples that screened positive for phthalates, the Ecology Center contracted with a laboratory to identify the specific phthalates. 

Although further study is necessary to determine which specific types and brands of dairy farm equipment still contain phthalates or are non-phthalate, this investigation found: 

In general, among the top five dairy equipment suppliers in the United States: 

  • Two major dairy equipment suppliers are now reportedly 100 percent non-phthalate: DeLaval based out of Sweden, and GEA from Germany. Flexible tubing, used to transfer milk from dairy cows to holding tanks:
  • At least one manufacturer of flexible PVC tubing, Finger Lakes Extrusion Corporation based in New York, still uses phthalates. Finger Lakes distributes its products nationwide;
  • The Finger Lakes dairy tubing (Glitex brand) contains DEHP, the most toxic phthalate still in widespread use, at a concentration of 30 percent to 40 percent by weight; ● Finger Lakes informed Pure Strategies that a non-phthalate alternative is under development;
  • In a subsequent conversation with the Environmental Health Strategy Center, the company would not commit to a release date for its non-phthalate alternative or to phasing out phthalates in all dairy tubing;
  • None of the ten samples of flexible dairy tubing from other manufacturers tested positive for phthalates, including those made of silicone, rubber, PVC plastic, or other plastic; and
  • All six samples of PVC tubing tested contained an alternative to phthalates, either DOTP or glycerin triacetate (triacetin). Teat cup liners (also known as inflations), which attach to the cow’s udder and draw the milk through a pumping action:
  • Of the two rubber inflations tested, only one, the NuPulse brand, contained phthalates. The tested NuPulse rubber inflation contained two phthalates, DIDP and DINP, at a concentration of more than 10 percent; and
  • Silicone inflations appear to be an alternative free of both phthalates and chemicals called adipates, whose hazards are not yet well known. Silicone’s reported durability may outweigh a somewhat upfront higher cost. The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging Gaskets and O-rings, used to seal joints in mechanical milking equipment.
  • There was no evidence of phthalates contained in the four samples tested; and
  • One gasket made of PVC contained DOTP, an alternative to phthalates.

Other dairy farm equipment tested for phthalates included:

  • Two plastic dip cup bottles did not test positive for phthalates;
  • There was no evidence of phthalates in one plastic milk filter that was tested; and
  • One sample of silage wrap was also non-phthalate.

The report recommends additional investigation to determine which other suppliers of dairy farm equipment still use phthalates and which are now non-phthalate.  Phthalates are a widely used class of hormone-disrupting chemicals added to plastics, rubber, adhesives, printer inks, sealants, coatings, and fragrance.  Human exposure to phthalates has been linked to lower sperm quality and infertility, and to lower IQ and learning problems in children.  In 2017, federal scientists concluded that up to 725,000 American women of childbearing age are exposed daily to five phthalates at levels that may harm the health of a developing fetus.
Most people are exposed to phthalates mainly from the food they eat. Phthalates have been shown to enter the food supply from every point along the supply chain – at the farm, during processing, from packaging, and during food preparation.  Last year, these toxic chemicals were found in 29 of 30 cheese products tested at a qualified independent lab.  Previous research in Belgium shows that phthalates enter dairy products at the dairy farm, during dairy processing, and from packaging of dairy products.

A new research study recently linked dining out to higher phthalate exposure, especially for foods such as cheeseburgers eaten away from home.  In 2011, Europe banned most phthalates in food contact materials made of plastic or rubber for use with fatty foods (including dairy products) and infant foods.  However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration still allows the use of 28 phthalates in food contact materials, based on outdated science and regulatory decisions made 30 to 60 years ago.  The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging This report is a project of the national Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging, which also commissioned last year’s testing of cheese products for phthalates.

The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging is a national alliance of nonprofit organizations concerned about human health, food safety, and social justice who are working together to persuade major food manufacturers to identify and eliminate phthalates and other chemicals of high concern from the American food supply.  For a list of Coalition members and more information about our work, click here

A Rundown of Phthalate Regulation (or lack thereof) in the United States

Lately, it seems like a new study on the health impacts of phthalates comes out every week. The chemicals are everywhere: they’re used in everything from household cleaners to food packaging to fragrance, cosmetics, and personal-care products.

In 2003, researchers at the US Center for Disease Control documented widespread exposure to a high level of a group of chemicals called phthalates(pdf) across the general American public.  The chemicals act as binding agents and also make plastics flexible.  The CDC recommended that the chemicals and their effect on human health be studied further, a recommendation that helped unlock funding for dozens of studies focused on phthalates, resulting in a tidal wave of recently published reports that largely indicate the CDC’s concern was warranted.  The CDC’s warning on phthalates also caught the attention of senators Barbara Boxer and former US representative Henry Waxman, who included the class of chemicals in their Consumer Product Safety bill, passed in 2008.  That bill banned the use of some phthalates in children’s products, passed an interim ban on others, and required that the Consumer Product Safety Commission take a close look at the chemicals.

The resulting report on phthalates – the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (Chap) on Phthalates – was finalized in late 2014, and despite the chemical industry’s efforts to soften the commission’s recommendations, public health advocates are largely pleased with the effort, a rarity when it comes to government-penned reports on chemical safety. With academic studies and policy reports consistently voicing concern over the health impacts of phthalates, and consumers beginning to sit up and take notice, regulation may not be far behind.

“The Chap report is the first major regulatory document in the federal government that’s highlighting the extent of the new science on the risks of phthalates,” says Erik Olson, senior strategic director of food and agriculture and health programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.  “The fact that the commission is looking both at phthalates as a group and at the toxicology of individual phthalates is really important,” he says. Olson was the deputy staff director for the US Senate’s environment and public works committee when the Consumer Product Safety Bill was written and passed.  Between the Chap report, a National Academy of Sciences report looking at phthalates as a class and what he calls “the tidal wave of research that’s been coming out fast and furious” in the past year or so, he said, “we’re getting past the phase of complete denial from the industry – they can no longer claim that there’s no risk at all with phthalates.”

What’s the harm?

Name a major public health concern over the past two decades and there’s likely some link to phthalates exposure.

In the past few years, researchers have linked phthalates to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues.

While phthalates is a huge class of chemicals and nowhere near every chemical in the class has been studied, several have been shown to have negative health impacts: butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP), dibutyl phthalate (DnBP), di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), di-butyl phthalate (DBP), benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), diisobutyl phthalate (DiBP), diisononyl phthalate (DiNP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP), dipentyl phthalate (DPP), di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP), di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP), di-isohexyl phthalate, dicyclohexyl phthalate (DcHP), and di-isoheptyl phthalate.

Enough distinct phthalates have been studied to indicate that companies should proceed with caution when using any chemical in the phthalate class, particularly in products for pregnant women or young children, whom the research has indicated are the most vulnerable to the effects of phthalates.

One of the first phthalates to raise a red flag, DEHP, was replaced in hundreds of consumer products with DiNP, only for researchers to discover a few years later that exposure to DiNP is correlated to male genital birth defects and impaired reproductive function in adult males.

Public health advocates hope to learn from the mistakes made in regulating bisphenol A (BPA) as momentum gathers behind the regulation of phthalates, and ensure that one harmful phthalate isn’t just replaced with another over and over again.

BPA was singled out as the sole chemical of concern in the bisphenol group, and regulated as such. Manufacturers largely replaced BPA with bisphenol S (BPS), which researchers are now discovering is equally as problematic as BPA.

With phthalates, the research has come before any sort of regulation – companies are not even required to list phthalates on consumer product labels – and legislators are already looking at the entire class of chemicals, as well as any particularly bad ones.

No escape

Both because of their ubiquitous usage and because they are not listed on product labels, phthalates are next to impossible to avoid.  They are in household items (vinyl flooring), personal care products (hair care, body wash, some cosmetics), fragrance, household cleaners, and food.  Even for those who either avoid these products or buy phthalate-free variations, phthalates lurk in unexpected places.

In food, for example, even milk packaged in glass may have passed through plastic tubes on its way from the cow to the bottle, taking DEHP along with it.  “Milking machines use a lot of plastic and DEHP is free and very lipophilic (fat soluble), and milk is full of lipids, so it just pulls the DEHP out of the plastic tubing and into the milk,” explains Robin Whyatt, professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia University Medical Center and the lead author on several landmark phthalate studies.  “So my guess would be that milk is a pretty important source of dietary exposure to DEHP.”

Spices are another surprising source of phthalate exposure.  A 2013 study, published in the journal Nature, compared the phthalate levels of two groups, one eating their regular diet but armed with a handout of recommendations for ways to reduce BPA and phthalate exposure in their diet, and the other eating a catered diet consisting solely of local, organic fare, none of which had touched plastic packaging.  The study authors were shocked to find that DEHP levels in the local, organic group jumped 2,377% over the course of the experiment.  Determined to figure out why, the researchers tested all of the foods consumed by the group and found high levels of the phthalate in dairy products and various organic, imported spices.

“The fact is you can’t know if a food has phthalates in it – you can suspect, but it’s almost impossible to know,” Olson says. “That makes them hard to avoid, which is why you need a regulatory framework.”

What now?

Regulation of consumer products moves slowly in the US, and that has proven to be especially true when it comes to chemicals.  Despite the recent movement on phthalates, Olson says it is likely to be a long time before we have the sort of wide-reaching framework that would adequately protect the public from harmful exposure.

That doesn’t mean all is lost in the meantime.  State and federal regulations have already eliminated the chemicals from some products, and that list is likely to grow.  California’s Proposition 65 now includes four phthalates – DINP, DEHP, DBP and BBP – under its labeling requirements, and the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) recently proposed changes to Prop 65’s warning requirements, which would require manufacturers to list specific chemicals in their warnings and make those warnings more detailed (currently the warnings are vague, stating only “this product [or building] contains substances known by the state of California to cause cancer”).

“Prop 65 will be a driving force for change on phthalates,” Olson says. “Companies don’t like to put warning labels on their products.” Consumers can also take matters into their own hands by avoiding products packaged in “recycling-code-3” plastic, products that include the vague ingredient “fragrance” on their label, and purchasing organic products packaged in glass as much as possible.  Whyatt also recommends that consumers remove any food packaged in plastic from its packaging and place them in glass.  “DEHP continues to leech over time, so you do actually reduce exposure by changing the storage container, even if it’s been in plastic before you bought it,” she says. “All the DEHP has probably not come out yet by the time you get it home.  And if there’s still DEHP in there, it’s probably still leeching out, so you can at least reduce your exposure some extent.”

“If we start by addressing the products where we know there’s significant exposure to phthalates, and we start with the most vulnerable communities – pregnant women and children – we can make a real difference,” Olson said.  “We could take care of a lot of food exposure through FDA regulation and toys through the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and that’s a lot. It’s not all, but it’s a good chunk.”

Retailers could also play a significant role, as they have with other chemicals of concern.Target and Walmart both launched initiatives to reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals from their shelves last year.  Both retailers have said they will make evidence-based purchasing decisions to protect their customers’ health.  With a mountain of scientific evidence piling up on phthalates, it can’t be long before consumers begin to put pressure on retailers and retailers in turn push their suppliers to find both alternatives to phthalates and ways to remove the chemicals from their products altogether.

Phthalates can fairly simply be removed altogether from products, with no replacement, according to “green” chemist Bruce Akers.  It’s when the chemicals are used to create tubing or packaging that eliminating them becomes tougher: “If you want soft, squeezable plastic, you’re using phthalates,” Akers says.

But according to Whyatt, companies could be using flexible polymers instead.  “There are flexible polymers that don’t require a plasticizer – they exist,” she says.  “They haven’t been studied really, so we need to know more, but they probably do not leech the way phthalates do.  The problem with phthalates as plasticizers is that they’re free floating, they don’t attach to the polymer, so they leech easily.  If you have a flexible polymer that shouldn’t happen.”

Despite the size of the issue, Olson remains positive.  “We’ve turned a corner on the regulation of phthalates,” he says.  “They’re extremely widely used in the economy and it won’t be overnight that we’ll see widespread phase-outs, but clearly we’ve crossed the river and we’re now at the point of debating exactly which uses need to go and where we can use alternatives.”

CDC Factsheet on Phthalates

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break.  They are often called plasticizers. Some phthalates are used as solvents (dissolving agents) for other materials.  They are used in hundreds of products, such as vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes).

Phthalates are used widely in polyvinyl chloride plastics, which are used to make products such as plastic packaging film and sheets, garden hoses, inflatable toys, blood-storage containers, medical tubing, and some children’s toys.

How People Are Exposed to Phthalates

People are exposed to phthalates by eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with containers and products containing phthalates.  To a lesser extent exposure can occur from breathing in air that contains phthalate vapors or dust contaminated with phthalate particles.  Young children may have a greater risk of being exposed to phthalate particles in dust than adults because of their hand-to-mouth behaviors.  Once phthalates enter a person’s body, they are converted into breakdown products (metabolites) that pass out quickly in urine.

How Phthalates Affect People’s Health

Human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown.  Some types of phthalates have affected the reproductive system of laboratory animals. 

More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates.

Levels of Phthalate Metabolites in the U.S. Population

In the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals (Fourth Report), CDC scientists measured 13 phthalate metabolites in the urine of 2,636 or more participants aged six years and older who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) during 2003–2004.  For several phthalate metabolites, results from the prior survey periods of 1999–2000 and 2001–2002 are also included in the Fourth Report.  By measuring phthalate metabolites in urine, scientists can estimate the amount of phthalates that have entered people’s bodies.

  • CDC researchers found measurable levels of many phthalate metabolites in the general population. This finding indicates that phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S. population.
  • Research has found that adult women have higher levels of urinary metabolites than men for those phthalates that are used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and similar personal care products.

Finding a detectable amount of phthalate metabolites in urine does not imply that the levels of one or more will cause an adverse health effect. Biomonitoring studies on levels of phthalate metabolites provide physicians and public health officials with reference values so that they can determine whether people have been exposed to higher levels of these chemicals than are found in the general population.  Biomonitoring data can also help scientists plan and conduct research on exposure and health effects. 

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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