You’ve probably given careful consideration to the food your children consume on a daily basis. But what about the other environmental influences they’re exposed to on a near 24/7 basis, such as the materials in their living space and, more specifically, your flooring?
It is likely no one in your home is more familiar with your floor than young children or toddlers living there, as this is where they spend a good deal of time – exploring, playing and learning the ropes of life.
As they crawl, their hands (that will later end up in their mouths) sweep across the surface, and their faces are in close proximity to the material itself, and any emissions that have accumulated in household dust.
Serious Risks from PVC Flooring Revealed
If your home contains soft, flexible plastic flooring, such as vinyl or those padded play-mat floors for kids (often used in day cares and kindergartens, too), there’s a good chance it is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). One of the main problems with PVC is that it contains phthalates, or "plasticizers," which are a group of industrial chemicals used to make plastics like PVC more flexible and resilient.
They're also one of the most pervasive endocrine disrupters so far discovered. A new study conducted by Swedish researchers found levels of certain phthalates were higher in the urine of babies that had PVC flooring on their bedroom floor.1
“The findings indicate that the use of soft PVC as flooring material may increase the human uptake of phthalates in infants. Urinary levels of phthalate metabolites during early life are associated with the use of PVC flooring in the bedroom, body area, and the use of infant formula.
This study shows that the uptake of phthalates is not only related to oral uptake from, for example, food but also to environmental factors such as building materials. This new information should be considered when designing indoor environments, especially for children.”
This is not the first time PVC flooring has made headlines. Past research has linked it to increased levels of phthalates in household dust, which in turn is linked to chronic health conditions like allergies and asthma. One study also found that infants who lived in bedrooms with vinyl floors were twice as likely to have autism as infants with wood flooring.2
What You Need to Know About PVC Flooring Chemicals
Along with common uses in PVC flooring, phthalates are also commonly found in toys, food packaging, shower curtains, plastic medical equipment, household cleaners, cosmetics and personal care products.
According to a report by Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI), studies have shown women of childbearing age have significantly higher phthalate exposures than other adults (could this be because they also use the most cosmetics?), and the chemical has been detected in 100 percent of pregnant women tested.3 It's known that fetal exposure to phthalates is closely related to maternal exposure, so many, if not all, babies are starting out with exposure in the womb.
In childhood, children are further exposed to phthalates in consumer products ranging from toys, pacifiers and food packaging to personal care products and crawling on vinyl flooring. The chemicals are known to be a major source of indoor air pollution as well, as they are emitted from numerous household goods, including not only flooring but also furniture, upholstery, mattresses and wall coverings.
Phthalates have even been detected in infant formula and baby food, likely because they migrated from the packaging materials. This likely explains why the Swedish researchers found that certain phthalate levels were lower in 2-month-old babies if they were exclusively breastfed, with no supplements.
It’s alarming that children are being exposed to so many phthalates, from so many sources, as these are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that have been linked to a wide range of developmental and reproductive “gender-bending” effects, including:
Why Premature Babies May be Most at Risk
The sad truth is that most babies are likely starting off with a toxic chemical load due to their mom’s chemical burden. However, premature babies get a particularly rough start due to the high concentrations of phthalates they’re exposed to in the plastic medical equipment used during neonatal intensive care. With each plastic tube that a newborn is hooked up to, the rate of phthalate exposure increases. And for those premature infants who spend weeks and months in the neonatal intensive care unit, the exposure levels can be extraordinary.
As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned, DEHP can be found in:4
In fact, these medical devices can contain 20 to 40 percent Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP, a type of phthalate) by weight – and IV tubing can contain up to 80 percent! DEHP is not bound to the vinyl. It readily leaches out of these medical devices (the tubing or bag) into the solutions that come into contact with the plastic, where it then goes directly into you or your child.
The degree of this leaching depends on the temperature, the lipid content of the solution, agitation of the solution, and the duration of its contact with the plastic (i.e., storage time). Of course, the more medical procedures your child requires, the higher the exposure to this chemical. So, babies who are seriously ill and hospitalized have the greatest risk of exposure, as well as being the most vulnerable to its effects.
EHHI found that male infants exposed to phthalates through medical procedures are most at risk of suffering health effects,5 which include excessive inflammation.
Inflammation is known to trigger a number of diseases in premature babies, including a chronic lung disorder known as bronchopulmonary dysplasia and necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious intestinal condition. After their initial onslaught with chemicals in the hospital, they will then go home, where, unfortunately, the chemical exposure often continues.
12 Tips for Reducing Your Phthalate/PVC Exposure
Anything you can do to lower your, and your children’s, exposure to plasticizing chemicals like phthalates is a step in the right direction. Among them:
- Choose toys made from natural materials (or at least only buying those made from phthalate-free plastic).
- When redoing your home, look for "green," toxin-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings.
- Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric or better yet install glass shower doors.
- Switch over to natural brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, and cosmetics.
- Check your home's tap water for contaminants and filter the water if necessary. You may also want to use an alternative to PVC pipes for your water supply.
- Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners, scented candles or other synthetic fragrances and perfumes.
- Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
- Avoid processed foods (many are packaged in phthalate-containing packaging) and instead focus your diet on fresh, organic and locally grown whole foods.
- Breastfeed your baby exclusively if possible, for at least the first six months (as you will avoid phthalates exposure from infant formula packaging and plastic bottles/nipples).
- If you use baby bottles, use glass, not plastic.
- Use only natural cleaning products in your home.
- Teach your children not to drink water from the garden hose, as many are made with phthalate-containing plastics.