From the chemical point of view, phthalates are diesters of orthophthalic acid. The esters are made up of an acid that contains an aromatic ring or two alcohols, e.g. ethanol or butanol. The hydrocarbon chains of the alcohols may also be ring-shaped hydrocarbons or aromatic rings. The physical and chemical properties of the phthalates depend on what the hydrocarbon chains look like. By modifying them, it is possible to obtain phthalates for different areas of use.
The Swedish Chemicals Agency has compiled information and flow analyses for some phthalates.
Phthalates are principally used as plasticisers in plastic and rubber, and the content of phthalates may be up to 40 per cent of the finished product. Particularly notable is the use of DEHP, (di(ethylhexyl)phthalate), as a plasticiser in PVC plastic. The largest quantities of phthalates are contained in products for flooring, wallpapers, cables, foil and plastic-coated fabrics. Phthalates may also be contained in various types of paints and adhesives as plasticisers for binders (link to brief statistics on phthalates) and in many imported articles e.g. shoes, plastic tubes and in some fabrics.
Plasticisers are not permanently bound to the PVC polymer, and phthalates are therefore released from plastic products throughout their lifetimes. This diffuse dispersal means that phthalates are encountered almost everywhere in the environment.
DEHP, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP) are classified as toxic and toxic to reproduction, i.e. they cause reduced ability to reproduce and damage to the unborn child. DBP is also classified as environmentally hazardous and very toxic to aquatic organisms. Here you can search in the classification list for individual phthalates. The risk assessments within the EU's Existing Substances Programme are finished for DEHP, DINP and DIDP.
Sweden have had rules for phthalates but these were lifted in 16 January 2007 when new EU rules for the six most common phthalates entered into force. The three most dangerous phthalates DEHP, DBP and BBP are totally banned in all toys and childcare articles. The three less dangerous phthalates DINP, DIDP and DNOP are banned in all toys and childcare articles if they can be placed in the mouth.
Phthalates which are toxic for reproduction and endocrine-disrupting – proposals for a phase-out in Sweden, Report of a government assignment. Report 4/15, Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate, 2015
Proposal to phase out reprotoxic and endocrine-disrupting phthalates in Sweden. Report of a government assignment. Report 7/14, Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate 2014. (In Swedish with an English summary on page 10).
A survey of phthalates in articles in Sweden, PM 2/14, Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate, 2014. (In Swedish with an English summary on page 9).
Additiv i PVC – Märkning av PVC (Additives in PVC – Labelling of PVC). Report 6/96, Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate, 1996.