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Sarah Janssen’s Blog

CPSC claims phthalates are "safe," but even Congress has a better understanding of what good science is

Sarah Janssen

Posted April 2, 2009 in Health and the Environment

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Yesterday, NPR ran a story on the federal ban on phthalates (pronounced thal-ates) in children's products. 

Phthalates are chemicals used in many common consumer products, including as softeners of plastic children's toys. 

The NPR story interviewed just one scientist from the federal agency charged with ensuring the safety of consumer products, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). She portrayed the ban on phthalates as not being driven by "good" science but rather public concern.

While at first I thought this must be an April Fool's joke from a media outlet which usually does not present such one-sided stories, it wasn't a joke. And it left the listener with a number of false impressions on the reasons for this federal ban and the science that supports it.

I'd like to set the record straight by reviewing the strong scientific evidence that exists to support a phthalate ban in children's toys. A more detailed description (with all the scientific references) can be found in the public comments that NRDC submitted to the CPSC on the "new" science on phthalates. We also have submitted public comments to the CPSC regarding the types of products that have been found to contain the six different phthalates banned by this law.

1. Our lawmakers' decision to ban these chemicals was based on modern science that is being ignored by the CPSC.  Since CPSC last analyzed the toxicity of phthalates in toys, there have been over 500 new studies published on phthalates and their toxicity.  In addition, in December 2008, a subcommittee of the Institute of Medicine issued a report acknowledging the scientific advances in our understanding of phthalate toxicity and made recommendations for updated methods of evaluating their safety. These recommendations are significantly different from the ways that phthalate safety  has been evaluated in the past.

 2. When the CPSC last considered the safety of phthalates, they only considered one phthalate, DiNP, and they identified liver toxicity to be the most concerning harmful outcome. The research that the CPSC is relying on to assure us of their safety was conducted by one of the manufacturers of the phthalate DiNP, ExxonMobil.  Industry sponsored research often finds no evidence of harm and our federal agencies have been questioned by Congress in the past for this. In the case, the Exxon Mobil study is also outdated and not consistent with our current knowledge on phthalate toxicity.

3. Liver toxicity is not the only harm caused by phthalates, including DiNP. Phthalates are also capable of causing reproductive harm and have been associated with damage to the developing brain, worsening of allergies and asthma, breast and testicular cancer, and interference with metabolism leading to obesity.

4. Many phthalates, including DiNP, are hormone-disrupting chemicals that interfere with production of the male hormone testosterone, and have been associated with reproductive abnormalities  in humans.  Previous research in humans has associated early life exposure to phthalates with a feminization of male genitals, alterations in hormone levels, and in adults high phthalate levels have been associated with poor semen quality. These alarming effects have also been seen in numerous animal studies which have linked prenatal exposure to certain phthalates with decreases in the male sex hormone, testosterone, birth defects of the genitals, and reduced sperm production.

 5. When the CPSC previously considered the safety of phthalates in toys, they only evaluated one phthalate, DiNP. However, we know that mixtures of phthalates are commonly found in children's toys.  

These phthalate mixtures have been shown in laboratory animals to be additive in their toxicity. In other words, exposure to a mixture of phthalates at low doses can cause the same harm as one phthalate at a high dose of exposure. In children, small exposures from toys and other childcare articles contribute to their total body burden and may be both significant and harmful.

 6. When considering the same body of scientific evidence, the EU banned DiNP while the US CPSC determined it was safe. 

Both the CPSC and the EU based their risk assessment of DiNP on an industry funded study with liver toxicity as an endpoint.  

However, this is where the similarities between these risk assessments ends.  The EU took a more comprehensive and protective approach in that they considered all routes of exposure to DiNP, including dermal and inhalation, In addition, the EU inserted a safety factor for children, which the CPSC failed to do. By considering all routes of exposure and including a safety factor for children, the EU ultimately determined a "safe" level of exposure that was much lower - and more protective -- than the level of exposure considered safe by the CPSC.  When this safety level was compared to the amount of exposure from toys, the EU felt the difference between to the two numbers (the margin of safety) was too close for comfort.  The end result was that the EU banned DiNP from children's toys while the US did not.

In the face of all this new science, the CPSC has not spent their time ensuring that children's toys are safe and free of phthalates as mandated by law.  The law already provides the tools and guidance necessary for timely and effective implementation. Instead CPSC has spent their time, energy and resources seeking ways around implementing protective measures for our children.

NRDC filed a lawsuit against the CPSC over their attempts to misinterpret the law banning phthalates.The court's decision in February against CPSC was clear and resounding. But since then instead of fulfilling their mission, CPSC has continued to stall and puts politics over science, the very thing they have accused Congress of doing.

President Obama has not yet appointed a new head Commissioner of the CPSC. Several lawmakers have asked for the resignation of the acting Commissioner because of her repeated attempts to block implementation of the law. We call on President Obama to appoint strong leadership at the CPSC, leadership that is willing acknowledge scientific advances and is capable of immediately and rigorously implementing the law as Congress intended.   

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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