What's In My Plastic? A Closer Look At Phthalates

Phthalates have long been used to make plastics soft and flexible, but recent public concern has prompted lawmakers to ban six of these chemicals in toys and other kids' products. However, the Consumer Product Safety Commission — charged with enforcing the ban — found that the exposure from kids' toys is too low to be a risk.

Where are phthalates found?

Until recently, manufacturers used hundreds of millions of pounds of phthalates each year in products including children's toys. A new federal law took effect in February 2009 banning six phthalates in toys and other kids' products. The ban covers all phthalates that have been used in kids' toys. However, the bill does not recall toys sold before the ban.

Often called plasticizers, phthalates can prolong the lifespan or durability of plastics. Prior to the ban, they were used in a variety of soft toys, including some rubber ducks, bath books and soft vinyl blocks.

Phthalates are also widely used in flexible polyvinyl chloride plastics (PVC), such as plastic bags, garden hoses, inflatable recreational toys, blood-storage containers, intravenous tubing, and some pharmaceutical and pesticide products, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They can also be found in household products including vinyl flooring; adhesives; detergents; lubricating oils; automotive plastics; plastic clothing, such as raincoats; and personal-care products, such as soap, shampoo, hair spray and nail polish.

The levels of phthalates used in cosmetic products are safe, according to several analyses commissioned by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (a trade group), the latest of which was in 2002. The review concluded that the exposure from cosmetics doesn't approach the levels that would cause adverse effects in animals.

What are the health concerns?

Phthalates are part of a group of chemicals called "endocrine disruptors." Some of these chemicals act like a hormone in the body; others block the effect of the body's own hormones. Health concerns frequently center around what happens when children chew on toys containing phthalates, and small amounts get into their bodies. Handling toys alone isn't a problem.

More than a dozen phthalates are in common use. Studies have shown that some of these phthalates can cause reproductive problems in rodents, but their effect on humans is under much debate.

Should you throw away toys that may contain phthalates?

Even if children are mouthing or chewing on those toys, the risk of phthalate exposure is low. A 2003 study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that children would have to chew on toys containing phthalates for at least 75 minutes a day to be at any risk. The CPSC also found that most children spent only a few minutes a day mouthing soft plastic toys, and that after age 2, children pretty much stop putting those toys in their mouths at all.

Now that they're banned, what replacements exist?

Under federal law, companies aren't required to publicly disclose the chemicals in their products or alert any government agency when they swap out a banned chemical such as phthalates for a new one. The federal law banning phthalates requires companies to choose a "safe" alternative. But most chemicals have not undergone much safety testing.

Two companies, Learning Curve and Mattel — maker of Barbie, Fisher Price, American Girl and Tyco products — said they are using citrate-based plasticizers as well as a new chemical called DINCH. The German chemical giant BASF started selling DINCH in 2002, and a company official says it is the most widely used phthalate substitute in the world.

There are no peer-reviewed, publicly available data on the toxicity of DINCH. However, European regulators have set a limit on how much DINCH humans should be exposed to each day, based on rat and rabbit studies that suggest possible risks to kidney health in animals.

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