Industry still resisting phthalates ban

More than three years ago I wrote about a new campaign calling attention to the then-likely (and now confirmed) health risks of chemicals known as phthalates. These chemicals, used as solvents in cosmetics and for softening plastics of all kinds, have been shown to cause birth defects and impede the proper development of sexual organs in humans.

In the years since, the European Union has banned phthalates certain toys and cosmetics, and members of the EU are now calling for a full ban of phthalates.

But here in the U.S., the story remains sadly the same. The Wall Street Journal has posted a mostly solid story on the current state of phthalates (pronounced "THAY-lates" or "THALL-ates", not "d-th-ooow-lates"). This passage stands out in the story (reprinted here for you non-subscribers):


This year, two direct links to humans were made. First, a small study found that baby boys whose mothers had the greatest phthalate exposures while pregnant were much more likely than other baby boys to have certain demasculinized traits. And another small study found that 3-month-old boys exposed to higher levels of phthalates through breast milk produced less testosterone than baby boys exposed to lower levels of the chemicals.
These results are the kind of smoking gun that health advocates have been expecting for years. In more forward-thinking parts of the world, the results would trigger officials and even corporations to rethink the use of the chemicals, in line with the ideas laid out in the Precautionary Principle, which seeks to minimize risk prior to widespread use of chemicals like phthalates instead of plunging ahead and finding out decades later that they are endocrine disruptors.

But we do things differently in the U.S., as this passage from the WSJ piece attests:
Marian Stanley of the [chemical industry-funded] American Chemistry Council, says studies suggest primates, including humans, may be much less sensitive to phthalates than are rodents. She cites a 2003 Japanese study of marmoset monkeys exposed to phthalates as juveniles, which found no testicular effects from high doses. The study was sponsored by the Japan Plasticizer Industry Association. Scientists involved in a California regulatory review questioned the study and maintained it didn't support the conclusion that humans are less sensitive to phthalates than rodents are.
Ms. Stanley's conclusion: "There is no reliable evidence that any phthalate, used as intended, has ever caused a health problem for a human."
Of course, as an industry shill, Ms. Stanley is required to deny, deny, deny in the face of logic, caution and especially hard scientific evidence. But even the notoriously stodgy and slow-moving federal government is beginning to make noises about regulating phthalates. A recent FDA study of cosmetics found the following:

  • 67 percent of the cosmetic products analyzed contained at least one phthalate ester.
  • Hair sprays, deodorants, nail products, and hair mousse contained two or more phthalate esters.
  • Dibutylphthalate was found at the highest concentrations in nail products at levels up to 59,815 ppm.
  • Diethylphthalate was the most common phthalate ester found and was present in 27 of 48 products.


(A more comprehensive list of cosmetics, mostly nail polishes, containing phthalates, can be found in this Environmental Working Group report.)

The study concluded that regulation of phthalates was currently unnecessary, but momentum is shifting. The National Institutes of Health is holding a three-day meeting to discuss the developmental risks of phthalates beginning next Monday. Watch this space for coverage of how much, or little, good news comes out of the meeting.

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