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Phthalates: The Everywhere Chemical That’s Hard to See, Not Anymore with LC-MS/MS

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A few months back, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a technical report on the use of chemicals in food processing and the negative health effects on children. One of the main culprits is phthalates.

The 411 of Phthalates
Phthalates are esters of phthalic acid ― refers to 3 isomers: ortho-isomer or phthalic acid, tere phthalic acid, and meta-isomer iso-phthalic acid. These group of chemical compounds are primarily used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or vinyl flexible and pliant to increases flexibility, transparency, and longevity of these products. By weight, they contribute 10-60% of plastic products in our homes, hospitals, cars, and businesses ― detergents, toys, and even in some soaps and shampoos. Talk about an “Everywhere Chemical”!

Phthalates do not chemically bind to the material they are added to, they break down and escape. In other words, water solubility is low and may not biodegrade in the environment.  This is particularly concerning when some phthalates have been linked to endocrine disruption, cancer, reproduction and development issues.1,2 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S. population with measurable levels in the general population.

Depending on molecular weight, phthalates are categorized as:

  • High-molecular-weight (HMW) – these have increase permanency with 7-13 carbon atoms in their chemical backbone, which gives them increased permanency and durability. To name a few diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP), and dipropylheptyl phthalate (DPHP).
  • Low-molecular-weight (LMW) – have 3–6 backbone carbons and are more than often the plasticizer of choice. Common examples include di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP).

Phthalates in the Food Chain?
That’s right. Unfortunately, studies have found phthalates can migrate into food preparation and packaging. From gloves used in food prep, tubing typically used in milk processing, food-packing films, and even coating from cookware.3,4,5,6 

In some cases, the use of these chemicals can be illegal. For instance, in 2011 it reported in Taiwan that bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and Diisononyl phthalate (DINP) were illegally used in clouding agents for use in food and beverages.7

Pretty scary, huh? As if the toxicity of these chemicals isn’t bad enough, the nature of these chemicals complicates detection and quantitation. A food testing lab will need to determine a range of phthalate metabolites in different food matrices with varying acceptable chemical limits. Coupled with chemical background and matrix interferences, it’s difficult to accurately sift through it all and accurately identify these compounds.

Detect Phthalates and Other Food Migrants in Food and Beverage Packages Quickly with LC-MS/MS
Beyond shelf appeal, food wrappers, packaging, and preparation utensils like gloves protect food from micro-organisms, biological and chemical contaminants. However, a lesser-known fact, that same material could migrate into the actual food we are trying to protect.

Fret not; our team has developed a technical note to demonstrate the:

  • Identification and quantification in 4 common food packaging materials using the 3200 QTRAP® system
  • Detection of migrants as low as .01 mg/kg in extracts
  • The use of a mass spectral library containing EPI spectra at different standardized Collision Energy and Collision Energy Spread values

For further information, download this free method today by completing the form on the right.


  1. Rudel, R. A., Perovich, L.J. (2009). Endocrine disrupting chemicals in indoor and outdoor air. Atmospheric Environment, 43,1: 170-181.
  2. Lyons, G. (2008). Effects of Pollutants on The Reproductive Health of Male Vertebrate Wildlife – Males Under Threat(Rep.). UK: CHEM Trust. doi:
  1. Cao, X. (2010), Phthalate Esters in Foods: Sources, Occurrence, and Analytical Methods. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 9: 21-43. doi:10.1111/j.1541-4337.2009.00093.x
  2. NTP-CERHR Monograph on the Potential Human Reproductive and Developmental Effects of Butyl Benzyl Phthalate (BBP). (2003). NTP CERHR MON, 03:3387. 
  3. Indirect food additives: adhesives and components of coatings”. Title 21 Code of Federal Regulations; 2014. p. 175.
  4. Chang, R. (2009, May 29). FOOD SCARE WIDENS: New chemical adds to food scare. Taipei Times. Retrieved October 5, 2018, from


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