chemical information


Chemical Class:


Found in these people:

Andrea Martin, Bill Moyers, Davis Baltz, Lucy Waletsky, Michael Lerner, Sharyle Patton, Monique Harden, Charlotte Brody

Found in these locations:

Sausalito, CA; NJ, USA; Berkeley, CA; Pleasantville, NY; Bolinas, CA; New Orleans, LA; Round Hill, VA


Found within many consumer products, phthalates are industrial plasticizers that impart flexibility and resilience to plastic, among other uses. Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is most often used as a fragrance ingredient in perfume, cologne, deodorant, soap, shampoo, lotion, and other personal care products (EWG 2003; Wolff 2007). Exposure to diethyl phthalate occurs through direct use of products containing this chemical, as well as through inhalation of contaminated air (CDC 2005). In the body, DEP is converted to the metabolite, or breakdown product, monoethyl phthalate (mEtP).

In September 2000, scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted the first accurate measurements of human phthalate exposures, and reported finding phthalates in every one of 289 people tested, at surprisingly high levels (Blount 2000). The latest exposure study from CDC indicates that mEtP, the metabolite of DEP, is a widespread contaminant of the human body (CDC 2005). Measurements of mEtP in the urine of over 2,500 Americans indicate that women are more exposed than men (CDC 2005). In a recent study of girls age 6 to 8 spearheaded by Mount Sinai School of Medicine, this particular phthalate metabolite was found in all 90 girls tested; typical concentrations of mEtP were higher than the typical concentrations of any other phthalate metabolite tested (Wolff 2007). The European Union has banned use of some phthalates in cosmetics and other consumer products, in response to concerns about exposure as well as toxicity. In contrast, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, a panel funded and advised by the cosmetic industry, determined that DEP is safe as used in cosmetics (CIR 2002).

Phthalates are potent toxins to the male reproductive system. High levels of some phthalate metabolites are associated with reduced levels of sperm motility and concentration, and alterations in hormone levels in adult men; assessment of the DEP metabolite mEtP in particular reveal contradictory or non-significant associations (Duty 2003, 2004, 2005). A recent study of 134 births found marked differences in the reproductive systems of baby boys whose mothers had the highest mEtP measurements during pregnancy (Swan 2005). A second study indicates that these mothers' phthalate exposures were not extreme, but rather were typical for about one-quarter of all U.S. women (Marsee 2006). Further research documented decreased testosterone levels among baby boys exposed to mEtP in their mother's breast milk (Main 2006).

In addition to this epidemiological research on humans, laboratory studies indicate phthalates cause a broad range of birth defects and lifelong reproductive impairments in animals exposed in utero and shortly after birth (Marsman 1995; Wine 1997; Ema 1998; Mylchreest 1998, 1999, 2000; Gray 1999). Phthalate exposures damage the testes, prostate gland, epididymis, penis, and seminal vesicles in laboratory animals (e.g., Mylchreest 1998); most of these effects persist throughout the animal's life. In laboratory animals, DEP also causes toxicity of the liver and kidneys. Other effects include altered pituitary, adrenal, thyroid, brain, and heart weight. Developmental exposure can cause skeletal abnormalities (ATSDR 1995a).

Further epidemiological studies indicate phthalates may produce non-reproductive health effects in people. For example, increased levels of mEtP, the metabolite of DEP, were associated with increased waist circumference and insulin resistance in adult men in the United States (Stahlhut 2007). According to the American Heart Association (2007), over 60 million Americans have insulin resistance; 1 in 4 of these people develop Type 2 diabetes.

Diethyl phthalate

Used in consumer products, particularly those containing fragrances. Linked to male reproductive problems in people; animal studies indicate multiple toxicities.

Diethyl phthalate has been found in 8 of the 9 people tested in EWG/Commonweal studies.

Other health concerns for Diethyl phthalate (References)

health concern or target organ weight of evidence
Chronic effects, generalunknown

Results for Diethyl phthalate

in blood serum (lipid weight)

Showing results from EWG/Commonweal Study #1, industrial chemicals and pesticides in adults

EWG/Commonweal results

  • found in 8 of 9 people in the group

found in 8 of 9 people, but not quantified

Detailed toxicity classifications (References)

classification governing entity/references
Chronic effects, general - weight of evidence unknown/unassessedStahlhut RW, van Wijngaarden E, Dye TD, Cook S, Swan SH. 2007. Concentrations of urinary phthalate metabolites are associated with increased waist circumference and insulin resistance in adult U.S. males. Environmental health perspectives 115(6): 876-882.