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Are You Swallowing Phthalates with Your Pills?

A recent article reveals that phthalates can be found in many prescription pills, over-the-counter products and even in dietary supplements.

Most people have heard of BPA (bisphenol A). It is used to make polycarbonate plastic and was commonly found in hard, clear plastic water and baby bottles. Because BPA has hormone-like activity and is considered an “endocrine disruptor,” there was a hue and cry about exposing pregnant women and babies to this chemical.

When Babies Are Exposed to BPA:

A study published in the journal Pediatrics (online, Oct 24, 2011) reported that exposure to BPA in the womb was associated with behavioral and emotional developmental changes. When mothers had higher levels of BPA in their bodies their girl babies were more likely to experience hyperactivity as toddlers.

These days there are very few bottles that contain BPA. Many manufacturers of baby bottles (and water bottles) now proudly proclaim “BPA-free.” It is still used in the resins that line most beverage and food cans, but there is a growing movement to switch to BPA-free cans. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that eating canned soup for five days raised urine levels of BPA 20 times higher than eating home made soup for five days.

The FDA is getting ready to reevaluate the safety of BPA in food and beverage packaging. Perhaps because of all the nasty headlines and in anticipation of the FDA’s forthcoming announcement, The Campbell Soup Company recently announced it would phase out BPA from the lining of its cans. If Campbell’s starts promoting BPA-free cans it won’t be long before other companies follow suit.

So far so good. BPA is gradually disappearing from water bottles, baby bottles and soup cans. Maybe someday it will also be removed from beer and soft drink cans as well. But here’s something to ponder. Are the pills you swallow giving you a direct dose of endocrine disruptors?

Phthalates as Endocrine Disruptors:

Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are a class of chemicals that have also been shown to be endocrine disruptors. They are plasticisers and help make a variety of plastics more flexible and durable. For example, they soften polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that has been used for decades in plastic tubing and intravenous (IV) bags used in hospitals to administer medicines. Phthalates are also found in many soft plastic containers for things like water, juice, vinegar and alcohol.

Because phthalates are so widespread in food and beverage containers, not to mention cosmetics, it is not surprising that most of us have detectable levels of these hormone disruptors in our urine. The estrogenic activity of phthalates has some scientists quite concerned. If you are interested, you can listen to two radio shows that discuss the health effects of phthalates and endocrine disruptors:

Death by Rubber Duck and Health and the Environment (The MP3 files are one-hour long and cost $2.99) You will need to click through to the store.

More recently, there has been a link between endocrine disruptors such as BPA and phthalates and asthma. Here is a recent report (Bertelsen et al, Environmental Health Perspectives, Feb. 2013).

Staying Away from Endocrine Disruptors:

If you are a concerned consumer, you may be trying to avoid BPA and phthalates in water bottles, food and beverage cans and other plastic containers. But what about your pills? A recent article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (March, 2012) reveals that phthalates can be found in many prescription pills, over-the-counter products and even in dietary supplements. The Food and Drug administration considers phthalates “inactive” ingredients, which is why they are found in so many pills and potions.

Pills with Phthalates:

Here are just some prescription and OTC medications that have been reported to contain phthalates:

  • Brompheniramine
  • Carbamazepine
  • Diltiazem
  • Erythromycin
  • Ketoprofen
  • Mesalamine
  • Omeprazole
  • Potassium Chloride
  • Propranolol
  • Ranitidine
  • Verapamil

Phthalates have also been found in some fish oil soft gels and garlic pills. Researchers have discovered that some slow-release magnesium supplements have phthalates as have a variety of probiotics. In other words, just because you buy your supplements in a health food store does not mean that they don’t have endocrine-disrupting phthalates.

It is unconscionable that the FDA allows food manufacturers and the makers of prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, as well as dietary supplements, to avoid telling consumers what “inactive” ingredients are in their products. We should be able to identify easily any phthalates in our vitamins, fish oil or other dietary supplements. Abbreviations such as DEHP, DBP, DEP, DMP, HMP, PVAP, CAP and PET all suggest phthalates. Even though they may be FDA-approved inactive excipients, that doesn’t mean we should have to ingest them with our pills.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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