Environment

Progress on Phthalates

While the chemical industry lobbies to loosen regulations on phthalates in the U.S., the European Union is moving toward a ban on phthalates and other POPs.
The new Cosmetics Directive approved by the European Parliament in January puts multinational cosmetics manufacturers in an unenviable position.

Chemicals classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction must not be intentionally added to cosmetic products, according to the new directive that applies to all 15 European Union (EU) countries. The directive will thus ban two commonly used cosmetics ingredients that are reproductive toxins according to EU law -- dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP).

Nearly 70 percent of nail polishes tested contained high levels of DBP, and many popular deodorants, perfumes, hair mousses and hair sprays contained DBP, DEHP or other types of phthalates, according to recent product tests. These tests were commissioned by the U.S. environmental groups Health Care Without Harm, Environmental Working Group and Women's Voices for the Earth, and by the European groups Women's Environmental Network and Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (full results are posted at www.NotTooPretty.org).

The test results drew an immediate reaction from at least one manufacturer, The Body Shop International, which was chagrined to learn that phthalates were detected in one of its deodorants.

"We have taken action to avoid the use of phthalates in all of our new perfumes used in products. We also aim to phase out the phthalates that remain in existing perfumes as soon as practicably possible," says a statement from The Body Shop dated November 12, 2002.

The statement also notes that the Body Shop has "strict standards prohibiting the use of PVC in its packaging and accessory products" - since phthalates are also used as a plasticizer in PVC plastic products.

Two other cosmetics manufacturers, Neways International and Aveda, also have phthalate-free policies, along with the nail polish line Urban Decay. But so far, none of the major multinationals have said when, or how, they plan to phase out DEHP and DBP from their European products -- or whether the reformulated products will be sold in the U.S. market. Products have until September 2005 to be in compliance.

The U.S. has no restrictions on the use of phthalates in cosmetics, which are overseen by the little-known Cosmetics Ingredients Review Panel. The industry-funded panel ruled in November 2002 that phthalates are "safe as currently used" in cosmetics because the products contain low levels of the chemicals, the panel said.

But consumer advocates say there is no need for beauty products to contain phthalates at all, and they plan to step up pressure on manufacturers to provide phthalate-free products for all consumers, not just those in the European Union.

"Would you rather have a little bit of reproductive toxins in the products you use, or no reproductive toxins? The choice of women and mothers we've talked to is clear," says Bryony Schwan, national campaigns director of Women's Voices for the Earth and lead organizer of the cosmetics campaign.

Since the launch of the campaign's website in July, more than 6,000 consumers have written letters to manufacturers demanding phthalate-free products.

More bans proposed

In a related development, the Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate recently proposed EU-wide bans on several consumer products containing the phthalate DEHP, including certain medical devices, toys and food packaging.

The plan has prompted repeated legal threats from the European Council of Plasticizers and Intermediates (ECPI), an industry trade group that accused Sweden in a letter of trying to "destroy the market" for DEHP, a 500 million Euro per year industry. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also warned that PVC medical devices may be a potentially harmful source of DEHP for some patients, particularly developing boys, but the agency has said it will not restrict use of the chemical in medical devices.

However, there are signs that the medical device market is moving away from DEHP on its own. Baxter International Inc., the largest medical device manufacturer in the U.S., signed a memorandum of understanding with shareholders in 1999 agreeing to switch to non-PVC materials for IV bags. Abbott Laboratories, under pressure from a shareholder resolution, also recently publicly stated its intention to move to non-PVC alternatives.

Massachusetts is also considering legislation that calls for the substitution of safer DEHP-free alternatives for medical devices and other products.

Stacy Malkan is the communications director for Health Care Without Harm.

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