Research Panel Calls for EPA Assessment of Phthalates

A panel of the National Research Council has announced that there is sufficient scientific data to warrant an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessment of the health effects from cumulative exposure to toxic, plastic-softening chemicals known as <"">phthalates, reports Reuters.  The Council stated that U.S. regulators should be looking at whether phthalates are harmful to humans, said Reuters.

Phthalates, make plastic products soft and flexible and differ from bisphenol A—BPA—which hardens plastics.  Both chemicals have been linked to hormonal disturbances and a variety of other adverse effects and both have made headlines in recent months over their continued use—especially in products and toys meant for children—despite links to physical harm.  Phthalates can be found in soft plastic toys and children’s products—think:  rubber ducks, teethers, and pacifiers—while BPA is found in baby bottles, CD cases, eyeglasses, and sports bottles, to name a few.  Reuters added that, in addition to toys and pacifiers, phthalates have been used in cosmetics, personal-care products, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and cleaning and building materials.  Both chemicals have been in use for decades.  Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that current BPA exposure levels are safe; however, the agency has agreed to conduct additional research on the matter.

Some phthalates are among the chemicals banned in the recently passed Consumer Product Safety Commission Improvement Act, which comes into effect February 2009.  The Act, which bans three phthalates in children’s toys and products in all but the smallest of amounts—and, pending additional research, bans three other phthalates—has been under fierce scrutiny because some manufacturers and retailers are using the window between the holiday season and the deadline to manufacture and sell toxic toys, which was not the Act’s intent.  Of note, the six phthalates, say Reuters, have been banned for almost ten years in European toys.

Reuters said the panel cited animal studies that revealed phthalate exposure affected male reproductive system development, reduced levels of the male hormone testosterone, and indicated links to liver cancer.  The panel pointed out that an EPA assessment could prompt revised phthalate regulations.  “If we don’t do this as a cumulative risk assessment focused on these adverse effects, we’re going to be underestimating risks,” said panel chairwoman, Deborah Cory-Slechta of the University of Rochester, quoted Reuters.

Recently, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat-California) issued a press release urging the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to follow through on implementing the Consumer Product Safety Commission Improvement Act of 2008 requiring the CPSC to protect America’s children from phthalates.  According to the release, the Act contained a provision written by two Democratic Senators from California—Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer—that requires the CPSC to remove toys and children’s products containing phthalates from store shelves by February 10, 2009.  The release explains that phthalate exposure can harm the development of reproductive organs and discusses how experts believe exposure to multiple phthalates presents a risk to developing fetuses and young children.

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