January 27, 2022

Toxicological Profile Published for Chemical Found in Many Plastic Products

A new final toxicological profile for the chemical di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) is available from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. ATSDR describes DEHP as a colorless liquid with a slight odor that is not found naturally in the environment. The agency’s toxicological profile for DEHP explains that the chemical was widely used as a plasticizer in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products. Non-PVC uses include cosmetics, lubrication oil, and paint. ATSDR notes that many manufacturers have discontinued the use of DEHP in their products due to concerns regarding potential health effects from exposure to the chemical.

DEHP enters the environment primarily through the disposal of plastic waste in landfills. Outdoors, it can be found in sediments and soil, and indoors, it can stick to dust particles. The primary route of human exposure to DEHP is oral through the consumption of food contaminated with the chemical. Some people, especially children, may be exposed by swallowing dust particles contaminated with DEHP.

Laboratory animals exposed to DEHP developed noncancer health effects such as liver and kidney toxicity, reproductive effects such as altered hormones, and developmental effects like impaired development or function of the reproductive, renal, hepatic, and nervous systems. According to ATSDR, rats and mice that ate DEHP for a long period of time developed liver cancer, while other animals developed pancreatic and testicular cancer. The agency says it is not known whether DEHP can cause cancer in people. However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program classifies DEHP as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” (PDF) and EPA characterizes it as a “probable human carcinogen.”

ATSDR urges people to limit the amount of food they eat that is packaged or stored in plastic that contains DEHP. Children’s exposures can be limited by not allowing them to chew on plastic objects not made for that purpose.

ATSDR’s toxicological profiles characterize the toxicological and adverse health effects information for hazardous substances. Each peer-reviewed profile identifies and reviews the key literature that describes a substance's toxicological properties. Information on the potential for human exposure; chemical and physical properties; regulations and guidelines; and production, import, use, and disposal can also be found in ATSDR’s toxicological profiles. A full list of toxic substances with published profiles is available on the agency’s website.