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Special Report: The

problem with phthalates
By Pete Harrison

updated 10/18/2010 11:35:26 AM ET
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BRUSSELS — Imagine a child sitting in his classroom, gazing through the window at the
rain. He picks up his pencil and chews distractedly on the eraser at its top. Chemicals,
classed in Europe as "toxic to reproduction," dissolve in his saliva and enter his body.

It's a scenario that may not be unusual. A report published last week by a consortium of
140 environment groups shows that potentially risky chemicals are present in dozens of
everyday plastic items for sale by European retailers -- from shoes to erasers, from pencil
cases to sex toys.

The study focused on a group of chemicals known as phthalates, six of which have been
virtually banned in toys in the European Union since 1999 over fears they can damage the
sexual development of children. But as the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) found
in its study, phthalates are present in items routinely used by children and on sale in big
supermarkets such as Carrefour and Tesco.

The study, based on a chemical analysis by PiCA, an independent chemical laboratory in
Berlin, found one pink pencil case with levels three times those which the EU says should
be the maximum in toys and "childcare articles." A phthalate that scientists suspect may
be particularly harmful to humans was found in an eraser at a level close to that which
would be banned in a toy.

Concerns about phthalates are not new, and retailers selling products containing them are
not breaking the law, because the regulations do not cover objects such as pencil cases
and erasers.

But the EEB study also found that retailers appear to be ignoring a legal obligation to
provide information about the presence of phthalates to shoppers. Less than a quarter of

for instance. right down to the shoes on our feet. and in recent decades they have permeated the very fabric of our society. phthalates coat the chassis against rust and soften the plastics of its doors." it said in a statement. they soften the vinyl floors of kitchens and bathrooms. after leaching out of the pipes and plastics used in food processing machinery. Some scientists. dashboard and the steering wheel in your hands. They are in our bodies. We have shown that not even this legal right is guaranteed in practice. "All citizens ought to be given full information about properties of chemicals in the products they buy. LINK TO SEXUAL DEVELOPMENT Phthalates are a range of chemicals regularly used to make plastics more flexible. Advertise | AdChoices Advertise | AdChoices Advertise | AdChoices "Unfortunately suppliers are only obliged to give information under specific conditions. There are about 25 of them. They are in our food." said Christian Schaible. "We have worked closely with our suppliers to identify these substances and have replaced them with suitable alternatives. The global chemicals industry produces nearly six million tonnes of phthalates every year. . and an increasing number of governments. some scientists think. should automatically be informed whether a pencil case for their child contains phthalates which can impair sexual development. repeated studies have shown sperm counts have decreased by about 50 percent in the past half century -. they put the flex in our shower curtains and electric cables.as well as to problems with the sexual development of boys in the womb. have begun to suspect that phthalates might be connected to a massive drop in male fertility globally over the past few decades -.retailers in its survey provided satisfactory answers to requests for information about chemicals in their products. Tesco said it was aware of its duties and has its own code of practice in place to keep worrying chemicals out of clothes and shoes. "A parent. They are in the air we breathe and the paint on our office walls." Carrefour told Reuters that it does adequately address requests for information on risky chemicals and said it deals with such requests within 45 days. EEB Chemicals Policy Officer. In your car.in the developed world.

and the accident went largely unnoticed. Just as Seveso taught us a lot about dioxins. numerous studies have proven that exposure to some phthalates reduces testosterone levels in the male fetus. It has also begun to examine restricting the use of some phthalates in other products. In the years after the accident. by interrupting the production of testosterone. In the weeks that followed many developed chloracne. The United States has limited the use of certain phthalates in toys since 2008. 1976. NOT FULLY MASCULINISED If there is a connection between phthalates and impaired fertility in people. As well as the toy ban. . interfering with normal development of the penis and descent of their testicles. an explosion tore through a pesticide factory in the small Italian town of Seveso. but because scientists are putting them under increasing scrutiny in the quest to understand trends such as decreased male fertility. Those same boys grew up to have abnormally low sperm counts. Advertise | AdChoices Advertise | AdChoices Advertise | AdChoices A few hours after the explosion. Nobody died. But it was not until 2005 that scientists made a link between the chemicals and changes in humans. and says it is investigating the safety of others. burn-like lesions began appearing on local children.The most volatile of the chemicals disperse easily from plastics and have been shown to interfere with the sexual development of fetal rats. at least initially. a process that is likely to take years. cysts and pustules. In July 10. But what followed gave scientists the first insight that tiny concentrations of chemicals could have a disproportionate effect on human fertility. Some studies have suggested similar effects in humans. Australia bans the sale of items containing more than one percent of a single phthalate. they would not be the first chemicals to have had this impact. an unusually high proportion of boys were born to parents exposed to the chemical cloud. releasing a dense vapor cloud laced with the chemical dioxin. the EU controls or bans certain phthalates from things like cosmetics and paints. a severe skin disorder typified by acne- like blackheads. In pregnant rats.not because of one single incident. medical studies later showed. we're now learning more and more about phthalates -.

If we find a positive effect. believes people will find a link between our environment and lifestyles and male reproductive health. the boys had changes in their reproductive development. "We have solid evidence testicular cancer has increased progressively across Europe in the past 50 to 70 years." Animal studies. Professor Richard Sharpe. they really drop down the list of suspects. Low anogenital distances are associated with problems of reproductive health.at just 134 infants. As an indicator." . Under the skin on its back are grafted tiny pieces of tissue from the testicles of a human fetus. I think it could be the end of phthalates.but Swan is working on a new. Respected journal Environmental Health Perspectives named Swan's team's study "paper of the year" in 2009 for its massive impact on current thinking about phthalates. but human studies are very mixed. The study was not perfect -.A group of researchers at Rochester University. such as undescended testes or deformed penises. they measured the distance between anus and the base of the penis -. bigger and more rigorous study that could help settle the science. "We found that in human male infants." says Shanna Swan." Sharpe believes that "understanding whether or not phthalates play any role in human male reproductive disorders is pivotal." he says. which was not fully masculinised. the sample size was very small -. New York.which is typically twice as long in males as in females. In an Edinburgh laboratory. he says "point clearly toward effects. The researchers then compared that measurement with the phthalate levels in the urine of the infants' mothers. The objective is to directly ascertain if those softeners could be confusing our hormones and mutating the genitalia of unborn infants. an expert in male reproductive health at Edinburgh University and the leader of the study. and is often used by scientists as a marker of masculinity. who led the study. a mouse wanders through its cage to sip at some water tainted with plastic softeners. If we don't find any effects of phthalates on the fetal human testis.the anogenital distance -. as predicted by animal studies. We'll have a much clearer idea in the next 12 months. GETTING CLOSER Other scientists are also trying to pin down the link between phthalates and changes in humans. studied the masculinity of newborn boys. when the mother was exposed to some phthalates. "and it has happened in a space of time that coincides with lifestyle and environmental changes.

The blue vibrator had 55 . As well as testing children's shoes. BBP. which argued it would choke off transatlantic trade. Evaluation.500 chemicals of concern.DEHP." FROM SEX TO FOOD It's not just children who are at risk. and the resources of the agency so limited. "Then there are those chemicals we don't even know about yet. Many activists are unhappy with the pace of progress and feel the Agency should look beyond the 38 substances it is tackling. Environmentalists and health campaigners.the law was one of the most intensively lobbied in European history. Geert Dancet. Bush. says it may take until 2014 to decide how these first few chemicals should be dealt with. Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals -. the Berlin laboratory tested samples from the shaft of E09-039/10. have compiled a list of 356 chemicals they want curbed immediately. It was one of five sex toys tested. ECHA's executive director. Its main role is to implement a 2007 law aimed at improving understanding of and control over 30. the Agency is combing through data given to it by the industry to decide which should be phased out fastest. as did the administration of George W. But the task of evaluating the evidence is so huge. including Greenpeace and the Health and Environment Alliance.THE SLOW WHEELS OF REGULATION In Europe. a smooth blue vibrator. The law now forces companies to register the chemicals they want to sell. four of which showed high concentrations of DEHP. that even the initial 38 chemicals will take years to phase out or approve. and in that case 2020 is the target date. From an original broad list of around 1. 38 have so far been classified as "substances of very high concern" including four phthalates -. based in Helsinki.000 chemicals regularly used around Europe that currently face few regulations. Advertise | AdChoices Advertise | AdChoices Advertise | AdChoices Known as REACH -. make up bags and pencil cases.Registration. DBP and DIBP. The European Trade Union Confederation has a list of 334 it wants banned from the workplace. European chemical firms opposed it. the group tasked with evaluating and restricting potentially risky chemicals such as phthalates is the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).

down from 42 percent in 1999. but all agree sex toys are likely to add to the overall phthalate level present in adults.. levels of DEHP plummeted and remained low for the remaining 30 hours. while another sold as "Prince Charming" had 63 percent." TARRED WITH THE SAME BRUSH Despite the emerging evidence. Many experts feel uncomfortable discussing the issue in public.manufactured by companies such as Germany's BASF and U. and represents the interests of producers including Germany's Oxea and Arkema of France.-based ExxonMobil Chemical -." said Dr Holger Koch. but spikes in phthalate levels seen in the study show there are other exposure routes too. . DEHP today makes up around 18 percent of phthalates in western Europe. In one 2006 German study. But even DINP -.is not beyond suspicion. "The European Union has confirmed that DEHP poses no general risk to human health. According to the Helsinki-based registration agency. "I am certain that food is the main exposure route for DEHP. such as DINP. Within the first 18 hours. might affect an unborn child." Some producers have begun substituting higher-risk phthalates with those scientists think may pose less of a risk. "Scientific evidence repeatedly shows that they are safe to use. which has a longer chemical chain. which is managed by the European Council for Plasticizers and Intermediates (ECPI). three volunteers abstained from eating for 48 hours.S. Scientists are beginning to better understand how phthalates enter our bodies. The use of DINP. who led the study. is growing.percent DEHP by weight. and in the case of pregnant women.. One of the main channels may be the food we eat. drinking only mineral water. suggesting that food was the main source. "We suspect phthalates are getting into food via the plastics used in the various steps of food processing. while the levels of phthalates were measured in their urine." says industry website DEHP Information Center." says Saykali. stressing a shift in Europe toward the safer phthalates. "Scientific information regarding DINP . Advertise | AdChoices But ECPI manager Maggie Saykali takes a more nuanced approach. "The danger is that all phthalates are being tarred with the same brush. some in the chemicals industry deny there is a problem.

but so far these provisions have been ignored. "There are fines foreseen for not providing the information. mainly China. And even if phthalates such as DEHP are phased out by European manufacturers. and only 22 percent gave a response that met the minimum standards laid down by the laws." says Buonsante. Decision-makers proposed back in October 2008 a dozen substances to be phased out. due to pressure from industry lobbyists. to find out about the presence of dangerous chemicals in the products we buy. but it cannot be excluded that they pose a potential risk if used in toys and childcare articles. Click for restrictions. there's very little protection -..com/id/39718649/ns/health/ .not the shoppers who are supposed to ask the questions. but measures will only be in place for some of these by 2016." says Schaible of the EEB. nor the retailers who are supposed to give the answers. even for companies that want to comply. As well as sponsoring the lab testing. the EEB sent out 158 "right to know" requests to 60 European retailers between April and August this year.is either lacking or conflictual. virtually nobody in the EU has even heard about that right -.msnbc. it can still enter Europe in imported products -. http://www. "In practice it is extremely complicated.nearly two-thirds of which originate in Asia. And as the European Environmental Bureau's study shows.the EU has instituted transparency provisions. "The process to remove only a few very high-concern chemicals will take several decades at this pace. More than half did not answer at all.a notification to the authorities and not much more. But Vito Buonsante of activist lawyers group ClientEarth says these "right to know" laws were largely gutted of their powers from the outset." says the EU's 2005 toys directive.. "If a non-toy product is manufactured outside the EU and imported.or help people protect themselves if they are concerned about chemicals in their products -. laws to make information about the chemical composition of products available to any consumer who asks.msn." Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters." RIGHT TO KNOW To protect European consumers in the meantime -.