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Phthalates: This Stuff is Bad. Learn What They Are, and Maybe How To Pronounce It

Updated: Feb 19, 2019

I think I’ve been ranting about phthalates since the early 2000’s. And I have definitely been ranting about it in our restaurants since we opened the first one in 2008. They have been called the “everywhere chemical,” found in everything from plastic straws to lotion to paper to our medicine, and to, wait for it… our food.

If you know nothing about phthalates, it’s time to slay the ignorance, because you can’t afford to keep your head in the sand on this one. That’s why I am constantly giving away copies of one of my favorite books, Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Rick Smith & Bruce Lourie. It is a necessary manifesto about the toxic stew we traverse in our homes, workplaces, restaurants, and everywhere we live, eat, and breathe.

Let’s start with how to say it. Ignore the "ph" and just say "thalates,” or more specifically, “tha-lāt.” Phthalates are not one chemical, but a category for a number of chemicals. Merriam-Webster provides a definition: "Any of various salts or esters of phthalic acid used especially as plasticizers and in solvents." Of course, this leads to the next question: What’s phthalic acid? According to the National Institutes of Health definition, "(1) Phthalic acid is an aromatic dicarboxylic acid, with formula C6H4 (COOH); (2) Phthalic acid is used mainly in the form of the anhydride to produce other chemicals such as dyes, perfumes, saccharin, phthalates, and many other useful products."

According to the Environmental Working Group, phthalates are part of the “dirty dozen” endocrine disruptors, joining the likes of BPA, arsenic, lead, and mercury. If you really want to go down the rabbit hole, follow this wiki-trail.

Why are phthalates bad? They are endocrine disruptors. According to the National Institutes of Health, this means they mess with your body’s ability to produce or effectively use hormones. Look, I want to rant and rave and give you all of the details, case studies, and links to the science, but the bottom line: This stuff is nasty, and has no business being in or around the human body. It really F's things up. OK, it’s clear I’m not a scientist, but there’s no shortage of real scientists making this crystal clear.

One solution, or at least a huge step in the right direction, is to ban phthalates in all food products and all food packaging. We also need to ban them in all consumer products, but we need those business people and entrepreneurs to solve that industry from the inside out. My platform is restaurants. And while I’m deeply saddened by the effects of these chemicals on all of Earth’s creatures, I am aiming my attention where I can help create change.

It turns out that human exposure to phthalates is worse in most restaurants than it is dining at home. A national research study looking at the increased phthalate exposure to people who dine out was summarized in the San Francisco Chronicle.

In our restaurants, I can say with confidence this isn’t the case. We don’t turn a blind eye to chemicals in and around our food or in and around our guests and employees. We have taken the lead since the day we opened to be people- and earth-friendly, for real. Everyday we are working on new solutions and contributing to a supply chain that isn’t adding man-made poison to what should be real, clean food. But even still, our mission and our intent isn’t enough to avoid these destructive bastards, cuz they are lurking in all sorts of places. I’m continually hunting them wherever I can. But I, and we, need help -- we need a movement, we need regulation, and we need conscious capitalists to create replacements and solutions.

My team is always saying Everything Matters, which means to us that being sustainable is part of our mission. We pursue LEED and Green Restaurant Association certifications for all of our restaurants. We pay attention to our construction materials, our paint and our carpet, the solvents we use in our cleaning products, and the hand wash in the bathrooms. Since we opened, we have said no to plastic water bottles, filtering our water and serving it free, flat or sparkling. We select to go packaging that is phthalate-free, and we are working with suppliers to use cardboard boxes and other containers for produce that is phthalate-free. We have eliminated plastic cocktail and drinking straws, in favor of paper straws, and recently launched a campaign-turned-non-profit – Our Last Straw – to eliminate plastic straws across the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Even our receipt paper is BPA-free (which most isn’t).

We are working to create a safe environment for our guests and our employees, and the planet. We can’t just hope for our government to do the right thing. We need to propel the government to do what we deserve and demand.

Frankly, I think we all should be pissed. Seriously. Why do the governments in Europe and Canada get these products banned before the U.S.? How is it that the U.S. bans are use-specific, eg, banning particular phthalates in certain uses like children’s toys? It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out… the plastics lobby, which is really the chemical and petroleum lobby, spends millions to prevent legislation and regulation, and then once it becomes inevitable, they ensure the final regulations get narrowed and watered down. The U.S. has banned a few of these chemicals, but not enough, and not in enough uses.

Phthalates affect puberty and brain development. It’s not evolution if we’re ruining a generation or two of humans. It’s unregulated profiteering at its worst. Think that you, your children, or your friends aren’t affected? You’re wrong. Go down the rabbit hole for a little while on these nasty chemicals, and I promise, you’ll be ranting and raving just like me.

And then try and avoid phthalates completely. GOOD LUCK. After you order your all-natural, organic meal, you’ll be holding a pen and putting your hands on the paper to sign your credit card receipt, and then putting your fingers on a piece of gum that goes into your mouth… along with the BPA from the receipt paper, and the phthalates from the plastic pen, the gum wrapper, and the “fragrance” and flavor in your gum. Keep studying, and you’ll find that your organic, all-natural meal was made with yummy ingredients, including the phthalates that got into your food from the packaging while transported from farm (or factory) to table.

WTF? This is not okay. Learn about phthalates. Figure out how you can help yourself and everyone around you get this crap out of everything we touch and breathe every minute of every day. And talk about what you are doing. Preach it. You might just be saving the world.


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