Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are the most commonly used plasticisers in the world. In Europe, about one million tonnes of phthalates are produced each year, of which approximately 93% are used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) soft and flexible. They can be found in a range of everyday items including electrical cables, hoses, flooring, wallcoverings, coated textiles, luggage, sports equipments, roofing membranes, pool liners, footwear as well as life saving medical devices such as tubing and blood bags. In addition, some phthalates are used in non-PVC applications such as coatings, rubber products, adhesives and sealants.
Phthalates are manufactured by reacting phthalic anhydride with alcohol(s) which range from methanol and ethanol (C1/C2) up to tridecyl alcohol (C13), either as a straight chain or with some branching. They are divided into two distinct groups, with very different applications, toxicological properties and classification, based on the number of carbon atoms in their alcohol chain. High molecular weight (HMW) or high phthalates include those with more than 6 carbons in their backbone, which gives them increased permanency and durability. Low molecular weight (LMW) or low phthalates are those with only 3-6 carbon atoms in their backbone.
Due to their widespread use, phthalates have undergone extensive testing for possible health and environmental effects and are thus amongst the most widely researched of all chemical substances. In Europe, the European Commission, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and EU Member States have undertaken 10-year-long comprehensive scientific assessments of both high and low phthalates under the EU Risk Assessment Regulation.