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 Phthalates: Still Overused and Under-Regulated Minimize

Our Chemical Safety System Fails to Protect Public Health from Phthalates

A broken chemical safety system has allowed the use of phthalates to rise for decades, even as scientific concerns about safety have steadily mounted. First introduced in the 1920’s, phthalates were "grandfathered in" when the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed nearly forty years ago. That means their use could continue and grow without any safety assessment or mandatory testing for health hazards. Congress has never updated the law and meaningful, health-protective TSCA reform remains a necessary but elusive goal.

Beginning in Europe, over the last 15 years a consensus emerged among independent scientists and government regulators that phthalates pose serious risks to public health. All seven of the phthalates we tested in Maine people have been prioritized by various state, federal and European government agencies due to scientific concern about hazards and exposures:

• Six are named in a Phthalates Action Plan by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

• Six are Chemicals of High Concern to Children in the State of Washington

• Five are banned in toys and childcare items by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

• Five are known to cause cancer and/or developmental toxicity by the State of California

• Four are banned as Substances of Very High Concern by the European Chemicals Agency, and

• Four are designated as Chemicals of High Concern by the State of Maine.

Business leaders have also begun to act. Several cosmetic companies have ended their use of DBP in nail polish. Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson have pledged to eliminate their use of DEP. Target and Walmart require disclosure of phthalates use by many of their suppliers.

Despite these growing concerns, reductions in the use of phthalates has been slow to materialize. Between 2000 and 2010, U.S. exposure to the four phthalates that have come under the greatest market and regulatory pressure (DEP, DEHP, BBP, DBP) declined by only 42%, 37%, 32%, 17%, respectively. But over the same decade, American exposure actually increased for four other phthalates (DIBP by 206%, DINP by 149%, DnOP by 25%, DIDP by 15%). In a classic case of regrettable substitution, the declining phthalates are being replaced in part by the increasing phthalates, which pose similar health threats but are less studied.

Under the new European chemical policy known as REACH, four phthalates (DEHP, BBP, DBP, DIBP) will be phased out there by February 2015 as Substances of Very High Concern, unless exemptions are granted for specific uses due to a lack of safer alternatives or exceptional socio-economic impacts. Once banned in Europe, these phthalates can still be used in most products sold in the U.S., creating a double standard of unequal protection for Americans.

In the absence of timely and meaningful TSCA reform by Congress, state policymakers and market leaders must continue to step up their actions to require disclosure of the use of phthalates in products and to spur the switch to safer substitutes as soon as practicable.


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