Phthalates—difficult to say, and bad for your health
Eventually, toxic chemicals are no longer tolerated by an increasingly informed public, retailers and product manufacturers, and regulators. In the meantime, however, they manage to do a lot of damage while those with vested interests muddy the scientific waters and defend the indefensible.
A case in point is ‘phthalates’ (the first two letters are silent), a family of toxic, synthetic, high production volume industrial chemicals used mostly to make plastics softer and more flexible. Due to the evidence of widespread human exposure and concerns about public safety, especially for pre-natal and early life exposures, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) proposed bans on some uses on toys and other children’s products in 2015, but has so far failed to finalize its proposal. That’s why NRDC, scientists, and health professionals recently wrote comments pushing CPSC to do the right thing for public health protection by finalizing the bans.
Phthalates are in a large number of consumer products like vinyl flooring, vinyl blinds, personal care products, plastic food wrap and plastic packaging as well as toys and child care products like vinyl bathtub toys and teething rings. They are also in house dust, our food (especially fatty and highly processed foods), and our bodies.
Many phthalates are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)—i.e. they disrupt hormone signaling pathways—and are especially harmful if exposures occur during fetal or early life since they disrupt development, including reproductive organs, the brain, and the nervous system. Phthalate exposures in adult men have been linked to DNA damage in sperm and poor sperm quality. Exposure for pregnant women has been linked to altered genital development in male children, and in both boys and girls to learning deficits, poor memory, and behavioral problems (see summary here and here). Many of the phthalates are also toxic to the liver and kidneys.
Effective 2009, Congress banned six phthalates from use in toys and child care products. Three were banned permanently, and three were subject to an interim ban and flagged for further study:
Section 108 of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) permanently prohibits the sale of any “children's toy or child care article” containing more than 0.1 percent of three specified phthalates (di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP)).
Section 108 of the CPSIA also prohibits, on an interim basis, “toys that can be placed in a child's mouth” or “child care article” containing more than 0.1 percent of three additional phthalates (diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP), and di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP)).
CPSC finds unsafe phthalate exposures continue
Important annual biomonitoring evidence from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals (CDC, 2017) provides critical real-world evidence about what chemicals Americans are exposed to, from all sources, and shows changing trends over time. This informative biomonitoring program randomly samples the urine and blood of the American population every two years for evidence of exposure to over two hundred industrial chemicals, including phthalates.
The good news is that those data are showing that levels of some phthalates in people’s bodies—the ones that Congress banned permanently from use in toys and child care products (DEHP, BBP, DBP) in 2009—have come down considerably. However, the levels in non-Caucasian groups are still much higher than Caucasians, and levels in young children and reproductive-aged teen-agers are almost 2-fold higher than adults.
Unfortunately, a 2014 analysis by University of California San Francisco experts reported that human exposures have risen for the three phthalates that Congress subjected to an interim ban pending further study (DnOP, DIDP, DINP) (Zota et al 2014). The phthalate DINP has risen dramatically as manufacturers use it to replace DEHP and other phthalates.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently reported that the cumulative levels of DEHP and DINP together are high enough to pose health risks, particularly during pregnancy. The CPSC’s expert CHAP panel report recommended that both of these phthalates be banned, due to their potential for health harms. In particular, the expert panel noted that, “DINP had the maximum potential of exposure for infants, toddlers, and older children. DINP exposures were primarily from food but also from mouthing teethers and toys, and from dermal contact with child care articles and home furnishings” indicating that CPSC regulatory actions will be important for protecting these vulnerable age groups.
Some states and retailers moving ahead to protect our health, despite lax regulations
As voters and consumers, we have powerful means to speak directly to law-makers, product manufacturers, and retailers. And, we’ve had some successes!
There is a range of state-level efforts to try to increase public knowledge about whether products contain phthalates. In Maine companies must report to the state specific phthalate ingredients intentionally added to certain children’s products. In Washington, manufacturers are required to report to the state if their children’s products contain phthalates. In California, legislation introduced in early 2017 by Senator Lara, if passed, would require manufacturers to disclose ingredients in cleaning products including fragrance chemicals like phthalates (see blog by NRDC expert Avi Kar).
There have also been successful initiatives by retailers and product brands to reduce phthalates, particularly where pregnant women and young children may be exposed. For example, in 2015, as a result of campaign work by Mind the Store, the Home Depot, Lowe’s Lumber Liquidators, Menards and other home improvement retailers banned phthalates in flooring. Major electronics brands such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Dell have reduced or eliminated phthalate-laden PVC in new electronic devices. Kaiser Permanente, the largest managed health care provider in the US, has been successfully moving away from phthalate-containing equipment and building materials since 2012.
These voluntary and local initiatives are very valuable, but cannot supplant the need for mandatory regulations to bring up the rear—that is, the recalcitrant bad-actor chemical producers and users.
Product defense firms hired to thwart CPSC proposed ban on phthalates
Exxon Mobil is a member of the chemical industry trade group, American Chemistry Council (ACC), or as NY Times reporter Nicholas Kristof once called them, The Cancer Lobby. Kristof wrote, “The chemical industry is represented in Washington by the American Chemistry Council, which is the lobbying front for chemical giants like Exxon Mobil, Dow, BASF and DuPont. Those companies should understand that they risk their reputations when they toy with human lives.” (NY Times October 6, 2012)
The industry and the ACC, continue to tout the safety of phthalates. As part of its phthalate defense, Exxon Mobil and the ACC contracted with science-for-hire group ToxStrategies to generate a report that is intended to convince the CPSC to drop its proposal to ban the use of additional phthalates from toys and child care articles. (ToxStrategies is the same firm that defended hexavalent chromium, the chemical in the Erin Brokovich story, to avoid workplace and environmental regulations). David Michaels, the longest-lasting head of OSHA in its history, described this kind of business model in his book, "Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health." Michaels wrote, “They profit by helping corporations minimize public health and environmental protection and fight claims of injury and illness.”
Health experts urge CPSC to finalize its proposed ban on the most toxic phthalates, based on biomonitoring evidence of continuing unsafe human exposures
Unfortunately, over the years, the industry has become increasingly aggressive—and usually successful—in its calls for excessive rounds of input, peer review, and consideration of new studies, slowing agency efforts and delaying health and environmental protection. Authoritative bodies including the National Academy of Sciences (NAS 2009) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO 2008) have identified the problem of assessments being delayed, hindering regulatory agencies and preventing necessary safeguards from being adopted.
The CPSC’s attempts to regulate and ban some phthalates are a tragic case in point, with CPSC staff expending tremendous resources re-explaining, re-justifying, and even re-doing its work in response to pushback by the regulated industry. Protections delayed are protections denied.
That’s why NRDC, scientists, and health professionals wrote to CPSC, urging it to follow through and finalize its proposed protective actions.
For more information, NRDC has previously submitted comments relevant to this issue, including the following:
Comments from the Natural Resources Defense Council Re: Estimated Phthalate Exposure and Risk to Women of Reproductive Age as Assessed Using 2013/2014 NHANES Biomonitoring Data. Docket: CPSC-2014-0033-0142
Comments from NRDC on the Proposed Rule: Prohibition of Children's Toys and Child Care Articles Containing Specified Phthalates. April, 2015. Docket: CPSC-2014-0033-0089.
Comments from NRDC, Breast Cancer Fund, Greenpeace, TEDX. Estimated Phthalate Exposure and Risk to Pregnant Women and Women of Reproductive Age as Assessed Using Four NHANES Biomonitoring Data Sets. August, 2015. Document ID: CPSC-2014-0033-0109.
Comments from NRDC on the Proposed Rule on the Prohibition of Children’s Toys and Child Care Articles Containing Specified Phthalates: Determinations Regarding Certain Plastics. October, 2016. Document ID: CPSC–2016–0017-0012