Good News! CPSC Proposes to Ban Hazardous Phthalate Chemicals in Toys and Child Care Products

The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has proposed banning some of the most toxic phthalates (pronounced ˈtha-lāt) from toys and child care products, and NRDC submitted comments supporting CPSC's proposal, but also asking them to go further.

Phthalates are a family of chemicals used mostly as plasticizers to make plastics flexible and soft. They are in a large number of consumer products including toys like rubber ducks, shower curtains, and food packaging. Phthalates are also used to carry chemical fragrances in products such as air fresheners.

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There is widespread exposure to many phthalates - the CDC has found over 75% of the population carries residues of at least 5 phthalates in their bodies. Many members of the phthalate family have been shown in people to interfere with the synthesis of the male sex hormone, testosterone, and prenatal or early life exposure has been associated with reproductive harm, including birth defects of male genitals and later in life, with poor sperm quality and infertility (Hauser et al, 2006; Swan 2008; ). There is also some data suggesting that phthalates increase the risk of neurobehavioral problems including reduced mental performance, and increased attention deficits in boys exposed prenatally (Kobrosly et al 2014). Most of the evidence of harm has focused on the adverse developmental impacts to males from prenatal and early life exposure to phthalates, though effects in females have also been reported (Hannon and Flaws 2015).

The CPSC's Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) provided an expert report with a thorough scientific review of the health harms of phthalates and provided expert recommendations to the CPSC (see CHAP report, July 2014).

Researchers have calculated that current 'background' exposures to phthalates are in the range that have been associated with subtle effects on reproductive development in baby boys, and that these levels are below the levels that the Environmental Protection Agency currently considers 'safe' (Marsee et al 2006). It seems that current levels of exposure to these chemicals during fetal development and early childhood may already be too high, leading to an increased risk of allergic diseases (Braun et al 2013).

Due to the widespread human exposure and concerns about public safety, especially for young children and the unborn, both European and American governments banned the use of certain phthalates in toys and child care products in the years 2006 and 2008, respectively. Since then, the strength of the evidence supporting those bans has only increased.

NRDC agrees with the CPSC's proposal to maintain its current ban on three phthalates, DBP, BBP, and DEHP (the full chemical names would gag a horse, the acronyms are enough alphabet soup to keep anyone confused). These bans have been critical to bring down people's exposures to these toxic phthalates. Unfortunately, the banned phthalates have been replaced by others whose exposure in the last 10 years has more than doubled (Zota et al 2014).

CPSC also proposed to permanently ban five additional phthalates, DINP (now subject to an interim ban), DIBP, DPENP, DHEXP, and DCHP. Banning them will help reduce harmful exposures and hopefully promote innovation for safer alternatives.

However, there are other phthalates for which CPSC did not recommend any regulation. This is because either: they are less well understood (manufacturers have provided little or no toxicity testing information); they are less used commercially (so exposure is lower); or, they are toxic to other organs and systems (like adverse effects to the liver, kidney, or skeleton) but not the same hormonal pathways as the phthalates for which CPSC is proposing bans. For these, NRDC recommended the following:

  • Ban those phthalates that are toxic to other organs (DNOP and DIDP).
  • Ban DIOP given its structural similarity to phthalates that harm hormonal pathways.
  • Continue to review and monitor the phthalates for which inadequate toxicity and exposure information is available (DMP and all the chemicals that are replacing phthalates, including some under-studied phthalates) so they don't slip through the cracks and go unnoticed until harm to a large proportion of the population has already occurred.

In addition, NRDC recommended that other Agencies, notably the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), take responsibility for the phthalates that are used in food or personal care products including ones for infants and toddlers (DEP, DPHP).

Our recommendations are consistent with those of the CPSC's Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP), whose expert report provided a thorough scientific review of the phthalates and expert recommendations to the CPSC (see CHAP report, July 2014).

CPSC is doing the right thing by banning some phthalates from toys and children's products. But, the Obama Administration will need to go further to address exposures to women during pregnancy from consumer products including creams, shampoos, and products with fragrances. FDA will also need to step up to the plate to address exposures from food, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, and other products regulated by FDA. Unfortunately, fixing the broken FDA is a whole other problem.

Link to NRDC comments:


Direct link to pdf:

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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