Plasticizers – Benefits, Trends, Health, and Environmental Issues

Plasticizers – Benefits, Trends, Health, and Environmental Issues

Author: Vera Koester

Dr. Stéphane Content is the Sector Group Manager of the European Council for Plasticisers and Intermediates (ECPI), a pan-European trade association that represents the interests of several chemical companies and supports the safe, sustainable, and environmentally responsible use of plasticizers. He talks with Dr. Vera Koester for ChemViews Magazine about industrial and consumption trends.


What are plasticizers and what are their benefits?

Plasticizers are colorless and odorless esters, mainly phthalates, that increase the elasticity of a material (e.g., polyvinylchloride (PVC)).

Plasticizers soften the PVC to make it flexible and bendable. This opens up a huge range of possibilities for new applications. One of the main benefits of plasticizers is the durability they confer onto PVC applications, which can ensure high performances for up to 50 years. Without plasticizers, PVC can only be rigid, such as the PVC used in wastewater pipes.


What types of products are plasticizers used in?

Around 90 % of all plasticizers are used in the production of flexible polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also known as vinyl. The main applications for flexible PVC include flooring and wall coverings, roofing membranes, electrical cable and wire insulation, automotive applications, medical devices, synthetic leather goods, and so forth. Some plasticizers can also be used in rubber products, paints, printing inks, adhesives, and sealants for professional use. The use of plasticizers in all applications is strictly regulated.


What are they made of?

Plasticizers are produced by a reaction of an alcohol with an acid such as adipic acid, phthalic anhydride, and so forth. The choice of alcohol and acid will determine the type of ester that can be produced and hence the kind of plasticizer. The combinations are almost endless, but only a very limited number have survived the rigorous performance, cost, availability, health, and environmental requirements that are imposed by the market including by users and regulation.


What are the key safety, health, and environmental issues related to plasticizers?

Plasticizers are among the most widely researched of all chemical substances. In Europe, the safe use of plasticizers is enabled by Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), the most comprehensive product safety regulation in the world.

Many studies have been conducted in recent years to evaluate plasticizers’ effects on humans and on the environment, migration of phthalates, their presence in indoor air and dust, and so forth. Endocrine disruption effects, which means that the substance can interact with the hormone system of mammals, have been extensively evaluated to date. Only four low orthophthalates – di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP), and n-butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP) – have been found to have any adverse endocrine-related effects in laboratory animal studies with specific thresholds. Authorization has been recommended for DEHP and DBP on the basis of adequate control; no authorization request has been made for DIBP and BBP, and these substances cannot continue to be used in Europe as of February 2015 for REACH-related applications.

At the end of 2014, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) Member States Committee concluded that DEHP is an endocrine disruptor of equivalent level of concern for its environmental properties. The science on DEHP does not support such a conclusion, as the weight of evidence shows that DEHP does not cause adverse endocrine effects in fish and other aquatic organisms.

All other plasticizers have not been classified for any adverse health effects and do not cause adverse effects by means of an endocrine mechanism. Hence they are not endocrine disruptors. This has been confirmed by the ECHA after a four-year re-evaluation of the hazard and exposure data for two of the most widely used plasticizers, diisononyl phthalate (DINP) and diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP), including extensive reproductive and endocrine data.


There has been a lot of talk about plastics that leach plasticizers. Can you say something about this?

Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions related to plasticizers – for example, about phthalates “leaching out” and “easily dispersing/gassing out” from PVC products. This is actually unlikely to happen unless very abrasive detergents or solvents are used or if the items are exposed to extreme conditions for an exceptionally long time. Plasticizers do not readily migrate or leach into the environment from items because they are physically bound within the PVC matrix. If they could readily migrate, flexible PVC would not remain flexible and perform as intended.

Other misconceptions are linked to indoor air and dust; in this case, it is very important to emphasize that the presence of flexible PVC particles in house dust does not pose any risks to human health. Recent scientific studies have in fact concluded that household dust does not correlate to human exposure levels for phthalates and is not an indicator of indoor air quality.


What can be done to make products safer?

In Europe, the European Commission, the ECHA, and the EU Member States have undertaken ten-year-long comprehensive scientific assessments of plasticizers under the EU Risk Assessment Regulation. Moreover, the plasticizers industry is committed to the safe and sustainable use of plasticizers and flexible PVC applications. Huge investments are being made in the research and development sector to improve the performance of plasticizers and to produce new substances that can best reflect the market needs while also respecting all safety criteria required by REACH.

Product safety is not only linked to the product itself but also depends on the way the product is used in specific applications. This is why the use of plasticizers is strictly regulated and the European legislation clearly defines the specific use of substances in all different applications, from medical devices to cosmetics, building applications to toys.

To enhance the safety of plasticizers, it is, therefore, necessary to have a clear and consistent regulatory framework that enables industries to invest, research, innovate, and grow.


What is the European Council for Plasticisers and Intermediates (ECPI), and what are its aims?

ECPI is a Brussels-based association representing seven companies that produce plasticizers and alcohols in Europe. Our members actually represent more than 80 % of the European production capacity for plasticizers. ECPI is the voice of the European plasticizers industry and the authority for European and global stakeholders, from regulators to the PVC value chain.

Our mission is to proactively advocate and communicate the benefits of all plasticizers and their applications by providing scientific and technical expertise to European and national authorities.


How do you support the safe, sustainable, and environmentally responsible use of plasticizers?

ECPI is one of the founding members of VinylPlus, the sustainability program of the European PVC industry. VinylPlus is a voluntary initiative started in 2000 that seeks to improve the way PVC is produced across a number of key areas. For example, VinylPlus aims to recycle 800,000 tons of PVC a year by 2020. In 2013 alone – and following important growth since 2010 – 444,468 tons were recycled. The ECPI’s representatives are members of a number of VinylPlus taskforces that deal with different topics, from effective communications to the sustainable use of additives.


How big an impact do you see your work having?

ECPI is constantly feeding and receiving information to and from the entire value chain and other stakeholders including the media, regulators, scientists, and end consumers. Journalists have been particularly appreciative when the industry is willing to talk and proactively provide valuable information for their work. We organize meetings, such as the annual Plasticisers Conference held in Brussels, which attracts dozens of companies and experts to discuss the latest scientific and regulatory developments in our sector. Our website at, which has just been revamped, provides a vast amount of technical and non-technical information. We are also active on Twitter (@ECPlasticisers) and send out a quarterly newsletter.

Last year, the ECPI surveyed 46 representatives from European and national regulatory bodies, item producers and brand holders, PVC producers and trade associations, journalists, and NGOs. Our conclusions indicate that our stakeholders are relatively familiar with the plasticizers industry in Europe and the work of the ECPI. They broadly have a positive impression of our importance, thanks also to the continuous collaboration between industry and other interest groups.

In general, we believe our interlocutors have become more aware of the work we do and our key messages. They welcome the ECPI’s input and take it into account, which is very satisfying.


Do you believe there will be any significant changes in the plasticizer industry over the next few years?

As ECPI, we pay close attention to scientific, industrial, and consumption trends. The European plasticizers industry is constantly adapting to the always-evolving legal requirements and consumer demand. Data from the last 15 years show that the use of some orthophthalates such as DINP, DIDP, and DPHP has significantly increased, whereas consumption of classified orthophthalates has decreased. In parallel, we can see that the use of plasticizers such as diisononyl cyclohexane-1,2-dicarboxylate (DINCH) and dioctyl terephthalate (DOTP) has also increased, reflecting our industry commitment to developing new and safe products through important investments in research and innovation.

Regulatory changes, of course, have a major impact on our industry. Looking at the current trend, in Europe we saw an important decrease in the consumption of low-phthalate DEHP after its inclusion on the REACH Candidate List.


What are your future visions?

We must continue working together with regulators, the media, industries, and associations to ensure that plasticizers retain a key role in modern society. The ECPI will continue to promote the benefits of plasticizers and soft PVC, raising awareness about their safety and sustainability. In the future, we hope more companies will join forces under the ECPI to strengthen our advocacy impact and communication outreach.


Does your work mainly affect Europe?

The key activities carried out by the ECPI are related to the European regulatory context. Therefore, the immediate impact of ECPI mainly concerns the European environment.

Nevertheless, the ECPI is regularly in contact with associations such as the American Chemistry Council (ACC) or the Japan Plastics Industry Association (JPIA). This network enables the exchange of updated information about the regulatory status of plasticizers, best practices, and scientific findings.


What fascinates you most about your job?

What fascinates me is the opportunity to make a scientific contribution in major regulatory decisions that could considerably affect the plasticizers market situation in Europe, and, hence, the jobs and prosperity of European citizens.

Our association is also conducting a number of research projects with very reputable universities and institutes to increase knowledge about plasticizers and their possible effects and to provide consumers with high-performing and safe products.

Another interesting aspect is to see how close plasticizers are to people in their daily life, and how these substances can improve their lifestyle with myriad benefits to their health and the environment. Let’s just think about medical applications, for example, or innovative and sustainable buildings and constructions. This is why the misconceptions sometimes raised by the media or by inaccurate studies must be addressed by the ECPI by providing scientific data and reliable information about plasticizers and their safe use.


Thank you for the interview. 

Stéphane Content studied chemistry and attained his PhD in 1998 from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. His work enabled the development of substances that are potentially active for cancer phototherapy. Content did a postdoctoral study at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), La Jolla, CA, USA, contributing to the development of sensors for the detection of land mines.

He then worked for 11 years at Procter & Gamble, Brussels, Belgium, in the analytical product design and process development department for the development of liquid detergent. He joined Cefic (European Chemical Industry Council) in Brussels, Belgium, in 2011 and supported CES Silicones Europe in Brussels for two years before he became the Sector Group Manager of ECPI in August 2013


Selected Publications

For scientific studies about plasticizers: News page on; most articles discuss scientific papers and the latest plasticizers research.

[1] From Molecular Luminescence to Information Processing (Editors: C. D. Geddes and J. R. Lakowicz), S. Content, A. P. de Silva, D. T. Farell, Rev. Fluoresc. 2004, 1, 41.

[2] Integration of Porous Silicon Chips in an Electronic Artificial Nose, S. Létant, S. Content, T. T. Tan, F. Zenhausern, M. J. Sailor, Sens. Actuators, B 2000, 69, 193–198.

[3] Detection of Nitrobenzene, DNT and TNT Vapors by Quenching of Porous Silicon Photoluminescence, S. Content, W. Trogler, M. J. Sailor, Chem. Eur. J. 2000, 6, 2205.

[4] Ru-Labeled Oligonucleotides for Photoinduced Reactions on Targeted DNA Guanines, I. Ortmans, S. Content, N. Boutonnet, A. Kirsch-De Mesmaeker, W. Bannwarth, J. F. Constant, E. Defrancq, J. Lhomme, Chem. Eur. J. 1999, 5, 2712–2721.

[5] Oligonucleotides Derivatized with Luminescent and Photoreactive Ru(II) Complexes: Models for photoelectron transfer and photocrosslinking, J. F. Constant, E. Defrancq, J. Lhomme, N. Boutonnet, S. Content, I. Ortmans, A. Kirsch-DeMesmaeker, Nucleosides Nucleotides 2006, 18, 1319–1320.

[6] A Novel Metallic Complex as Photoreagent for the DNA Guanines Bases: The Osmium(II) Tris-Tetraazaphenanthrene, S. Content, A. Kirsch-De Mesmaeker, J. Chem. Soc. Faraday Trans. 1997, 93, 1089–1094.


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