Phthalates are plasticisers that are used to increase the flexibility of plastic. They are mainly used in polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a synthetic polymer. Synthetic polymers are a chain of large molecules. They form the basis for plastics and are manufactured in chemical plants. PVC has all kinds of applications, from pipes and flooring to toys and coatings. In addition to packaging, they are also found in recycled paper and cardboard. The most commonly used are (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP).
They are not chemically bound to PVC, which means they can easily evaporate in foods. They have lipophilic properties, making them “fatigueous”, meaning they are fat-soluble. This means that phthalates can easily be absorbed by fatty foods, such as milk, butter and meat. Lower concentrations are usually found in products such as grains, fruits and vegetables.
Acute toxicity is low. However, chronic exposure can be harmful for a person’s health. It is thought that they are teratogenic (harmful for the foetus) and have endocrine-disrupting properties.
Regulation (EU) 10/2011 sets specific migration limits (SML) for plastic materials and objects that come into contact with foodstuffs. Only five phthalates are permitted in the EU (DEHP, BBP, DBP, DINP and DIDP); other phthalates are prohibited. Most phthalates can only be used in synthetic materials and objects intended for repeated use (hoses, gloves) or in single-use materials and objects that come into contact with non-fatty food (packaging, plastic wrap), with the exception of baby food.
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