Breastfeeding logo

Toxic Phthalates in Infant Formulas

Chemical Found in UK Baby Milks reduces Sperm Counts

hthalates, a chemical used in the production of plastics, was recently found in all 15 brands of infant formulas tested by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food(1) (MAFF) in Great Britain. Nine of the brands tested contained levels approaching those high enough to result in reduced sperm counts in rats.

Used in the production of plastics since 1930, phthalates are also found in inks used to print on plastic, board, and foil-packed products; in vinyl flooring and emulsion paints. Because they are fat soluble, they concentrate in the fatty component of foods such as butter, cheese and margarine, and are now banned or phased out in several countries indluding Japan, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. Their ubiquitous presence in infant formulas in some brands, at high levels is raising legitimate and substantial apprehension, not only in Great Britain, but in Canada as well. Concerns centre on the oestrogenic effects of the phthalate contaminants and the potentially harmful effects on the development of growing infants. Phthalates are considered to be part of a growing group of environmental toxins that are thought to mimic female hormones. Oestrogenic effects have been implicated in reduced sperm counts in the west and occurrences such as the feminization of male fish.

The phthalate group of chemicals includes: diethylhexylphthalate (DEHP), monoethylhexylphthalate (MEHP), dimethylphthalate (DMP), butylbenzylphthalate (BBP), dibutylphthalate (DBP) and dioetylphthalate (DOP). Some, especially DEHP are known to be testicular toxicants. Part of this toxicity is believed to involve depletion of testicular zinc and is believed to cause the disintegration of testicular cells. When male rats were exposed to low levels of BBP from 0.126 mg/kg/day to 0.370 mg/kg/day during gestation and early life, researchers reported(2) a reduction in their sperm production and reduced testes size.

The question of how much phthalate do infants consume and what is the impact of phthalates on the growth and development of infants needs to be asked. When infant formulas are fed according to manufacturers recommendation, it is estimated that the total level of phthalates consumed by a new-born infant will be, on average, 0.13 mg/kg of body weight/per day. In the UK study, the most contaminated infant formulas had levels of the two phthalates considered to be the most oestrogenic, BBP and DBP, so high as to give a combined estimated intake of 0.023 mg/kg of body weight/day. This estimated intake is only 4 times lower than the dose of BBP fed to rats, resulting in lowered sperm counts.

The accumulating evidence that artificial baby milks are hazardous products and should not be mass marketed, confirms time and again that breastfeeding is the only safe and nutritionally secure way to feed infants and young children.

Infant formulas marketed in Canada have not been tested for the presence of phthalates, according to Health Canada spokesperson, Dr. Bev Huston. At this time Health Canada is investigating the methodology to test infant formulas for its presence. It should be noted that some infant formulas marketed in Canada are imported from Ireland. Infant formulas tested in Britain included formulas produced in Ireland. Also, ingredients to produce infant formulas are purchased on global markets. Hence, it would be anticipated that formulas sold in Canada also contain phthalates.

The presence of phthalates is yet annother chapter in a history of a product rife with problem chemicals. These include bacterial contamination, product recalls, formulation error and industrial contaminants. Other harmful chemicals found in infant formulas include heavy metals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium. A few years ago dangerously high levels of aluminium were found in soy-based formulas. All this in addition to the increased risk for infectious diseases, immune disorders and allergies associated with the feeding of infant formulas to new-borns and infants. It should also be noted that the UK study was done on dry formulas, the levels reported does not include the impact of reconstitution nor the feeding in a plastic bottle.

When infants are fed infant formula as their sole source of food for the first four to six months of life, this poses unique concerns regarding the quality and safety of artificial feeding.

It is vital for the health and well-being of infants and young children that governments, policy makers, institutional and community health care providers and communities ensure that breastfeeding is promoted, supported and protected. Implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes would be a good place to start. The breastfeeding community is eagerly waiting for Health Canada to stop listening to industry lobbyists.



1. MAFF, 1996. Food surveillance information sheet number 83. Phthalates in infant formulae. UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Back

2. Sharpe R.M. et al. Gestational and lactational exposure of rats to xenoestrogens results in reduced testicular size and sperm production. Environ. Health Persp. 103:1136-1143, 1995. Back


Top | Spring 96 Contents