THE BLOG

The Case Against Phthalates in Children's Toys

03/24/2008 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I was amused to read Elizabeth Whalen's criticism last month of what she calls "purveyors of unfounded health scares"--those who, like myself, have written about the growing evidence of toxic chemical's effect on the human metabolism. In her post of February 6, "Hostages in the War Against Chemicals," Whalen termed my recent book, Exposed, the work of an "activist" because I lay out claims by a growing number of scientists that a plastic softener called phthalates, used to make toys soft enough to be played with and sucked upon by children can disrupt the sexual development of infant males.

Her attempted aspersion of my motives is typical of efforts to cast doubt on journalists who question the chemical industry's self-interested affirmations as to the safety of their products. I mean no insult to so-called 'activists' to affirm that I'm not one of them. Activists do their work; I do mine. In this case my work was reporting the findings of scientists about the apparent havoc wreaked on infant's developing metabolism from phthalates. (A television version of these findings is appearing on Friday, March 21, on the PBS television newsmagazine program, NOW.)

In her post, Dr. Whelan, President of the American Council for Science and Health, claims that "there is no evidence whatsoever--not even a hint--of health problems from phthalates used by children or adults." Alas, there is far more than a "hint" of such evidence. My book contains abundant, peer-reviewed evidence of such claims.

Dozens of studies of rodents and, increasingly, of humans have demonstrated precisely that: the evidence suggests strongly that phthalates disrupt the developing endocrine system of infant boys (at this stage, most of the research does focus on boys because phthalates affect production of the male sexual hormone, testosterone). A study published last week in the journal Pediatrics found evidence of phthalates in every one of the 163 infants under thirteen months that a team of scientists tested for the synthetic substance. Why does this matter? Studies in Denmark concluded in 2006 that high levels of phthalates in mother's breast milk contributed to lower levels of testosterone production in their male offspring in the first three months of life.

Closer to home, scientists in the United States have come to similar conclusions. Dr. Shanna Swan, Director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the Rochester University School of Medicine and Dentistry, showed a corollary between the phthalate intake of pregnant women and decreased ano-genital distance in their male offspring. That study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a scientific journal published by the U.S.-government funded National Institutes of Health. She told me shortly after the study was published that one of her fears is that phthalates could be contributing to "the feminization of infant boys."

Dr. Earl Grey has been studying phthalates for two decades at the EPA's research facility in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. He was the first in the United States to begin identifying sexual malformations in rodents that were fed a diet high in phthalates. The effects were so consistent that he dubbed the array of symptoms "the phthalate syndrome." These include hypospadias (shrunken testicles) and decreased ano-genital distance. Most alarming, he told me in a telephone interview, is that research he has reviewed by other scientists in this country and abroad have begun to suggest that the 'syndrome' he's been seeing in mice is starting to show parallels in infant boys exposed to phthalates in the womb and in the first months of life. The United States' own National Toxicology Program, run out of the Department of Health and Human Services, concluded in 2005 that it had "concern"--its second highest level of apprehension--over "the effects of exposure to DEHP [a phthalate used frequently in toys] on development of the male reproductive tract for infants less than one year old."

The problem, despite Dr. Whelan's assertions, is not lack of evidence; the problem has been that no one in a policy-making position inside the U.S. government has been willing to listen to their or any other American scientist's research on the potential endocrine-disrupting effects of phthalates. Dr. Whelan claims that the FDA and Consumer Product Safety Commission have affirmed phthalates safety. The FDA does not have jurisdiction over phthalates in toys. The CPSC does, and the sole study it conducted was in 2003, when the Commission assessed how much time children spend sucking on toys treated with phthalates. It concluded that children under the age of one spend an average of 75 minutes a day sucking on plastic toys--not enough time, it concluded, to deliver a toxic dose.

I reported these conclusions in my book. Many scientists, however, assert that the array of different exposures that children experience to phthalates--from toys, from furniture, from the air they breathe from the phthalate-treated shower curtains, rainwear, and dashboards in their parent's cars, and even in the womb from the phthalates their mothers are exposed to--are far more than the simple plastic in a toy. It is the accumulation of exposures that scientists say present a potential danger to a young child's highly vulnerable developing reproductive and nervous system.

Should you believe me? Okay, you don't have to... But there is a source that carries a bit more weight in the global economy and scientific community than myself: the European Union. As in many other so-called debates over the veracity of chemical dangers that we've seen here in the United States, the EU, representing 27 countries and a population far larger than that of the United States, has come to an entirely different conclusion about the evidence concerning phthalates than has the Bush administration. The EU's Directorate on Health and Consumer Affairs concluded that phthalates, "should be treated as a disrupter of the endocrine system." The EU banned phthalates from all toys "aimed at children under three" because of their fears it could disrupt sexual development.

The EU, not incidentally, is now the world's largest single market, having surpassed the United States in 2005. The result? Since the EU banned phthalates in 2000, manufacturers in China--which produces 85% of the world's toys--make toys without phthalates for the Europeans, and toys with phthalates for Americans. And here's the twist: in Europe far less toxic alternatives have been found and European kids have as many goofy animals and even rubber duckies to play with as kids in the United States. Their parents, though, can be a lot more sure of their safety than parents in the United States.

The irony is that the EU's action was based partly on the research conducted by American scientists Shanna Swan and Earl Grey. When California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, hardly a wild-eyed radical, signed a bill banning phthalates from toys for sale in the state, starting in 2009 (ten years after the ban in Europe), the law was based on that of the EU, which in turn had been based partly on the evidence supplied by Dr. Grey and Dr. Swan. The information had to flow from the United States to Europe and back to the state of California. Earlier this month, California Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed banning phthalates from children's toys in the U.S. Senate--which has yet to be voted on. That proposal is also based on the law in the European Union.

One thing that Ms. Whalen neglected to mention: the American Council on Science and Health, of which she is President, has forty percent of its budget paid for by corporations, according to a statement on the group's website by Whalen herself. The group no longer lists the names of its funders, but in the past, those named have included Chevron, Dow, DuPont, and Pfizer and company foundations including those of Procter&Gamble, and Merck.

These companies are among the key players which have helped create, through their influence in Washington, a laissez faire regulatory approach to chemicals that is increasingly leaving the United States behind the rest of the world in our approach to the growing evidence of harm to humans and the environment from toxic chemicals.

My book reports on how far the United States is falling behind the EU, and many other countries now following its lead, in protecting its citizens from health and environmental hazards. Phthalates are only one of those hazards; others are in cosmetics, electronics, and numerous other products Americans regularly use. Those dangers are described in numerous, peer-reviewed scientific journals (listed in my book).

What Ms. Whelan calls "scare tactics" are increasingly being adopted as real policy in every other developed nation other than the United States. Americans are now paying the price for the Bush administration's unwillingness to respond to growing evidence of the dangers from toxic chemicals, and unwillingness to mandate that U.S. industry be compelled to move away from them. There is an economic consequence to these actions as well: As citizens around the world become evermore aware of the dangers from toxic chemicals, those companies that are moving away from such substances are now presenting a serious competitive challenge to those American industries that are not.