Phthalate Plasticizer Toxicity Explained

Phthalates are used as plasticizers in vinyl. Some are toxic, some less so—yet many manufacturers are avoiding them altogether.

We commonly talk about “vinyl” flooring, wallcoverings, and upholstery. But these materials, while mostly made of PVC, also contain a relatively high percentage of plasticizer—up to 40% or 50%, depending on the product. Plasticizers are added to the rigid PVC to make it flexible. Conventional plasticizers are almost universally a type of phthalate ester (phthalate for short), a class of chemical that’s coming under increasing scrutiny.

It’s common to lump phthalate plasticizers together. But in fact there are dozens of common phthalates on the market, and they have diverse chemical compositions, depending on what kind of alcohol is used to make them (phthalates are made with phthalic acid plus an alcohol). They can be grouped into many different categories. One of the more common distinctions is between those with low molecular weight (containing up to six carbon atoms per chain) and those with high molecular weight (containing chains of seven or more carbon atoms).

Published June 6, 2016