At issue are chemicals called phthalates. Animal studies suggest large amounts of certain phthalates may disrupt normal hormone function and cause birth defects.
The chemicals, pronounced "tha-lates," are found in numerous products including plastic toys, medical equipment, food packaging, cosmetics, varnishes and adhesives. But it was uncertain how much people absorbed.
Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested urine from 289 adults and reported Friday that they found a surprise: The most common phthalates ones environmentalists have argued make toys and medical equipment dangerous float in people's bodies only at low levels.
But the body levels of three chemicals used in cosmetics and solvents were higher than anticipated and in some cases, higher than other well-studied pollutants like PCBs, CDC lead researcher John Brock said Friday.
Those found at the highest levels are diethyl phthalate, or DEP; dibutyl phthalate, DBP; and benzylbutyl phthalate, BzBP.
"The most surprising thing was that the highest exposures (of DBP) are in women of childbearing age. That's not where you want to have them, when dealing with compounds that cause birth defects," said phthalate expert Paul M.D. Foster of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology.
Still, even women with the highest levels had 100 times fewer phthalates in their bodies than the level that caused birth defects in animals, Foster said. Nor do phthalates build up in the body; they're excreted within days.
The question is whether repeated exposure might be harmful, and that is something the government is studying.
Friday's study doesn't "talk about any health effects at all," cautioned Brock, whose data was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. "It would be premature for people to assume this means anything other than we are exposed to these compounds."