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After nearly a decade of proposals and delays, in October 2017 the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a final rule prohibiting the manufacture, distribution, and sale of toys and child care products containing five phthalate chemicals known to cause neurodevelopmental and reproductive disorders in children.

Phthalates are chemicals used to soften or plasticize vinyl. The CPSC’s 2017 final rule bans five phthalates in children’s toys, however does not require warning labels on products containing these toxic chemicals.

CDC Detects Widespread Phthalate Exposure

As early as 2003, researchers at the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) documented “widespread exposure to a high level of a group of chemicals called phthalates” across the general American public, causing the CDC to recommend that the chemicals and their effect on human health be studied further and unlocking funding for studies focused on phthalates.

National Academy of Sciences Report Shows Phthalate Health Risk

In December 2008, the National Academy of Sciences published a report linking phthalates to the following conditions:

  • Asthma
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Breast cancer
  • Obesity and Type II Diabetes
  • Low IQ
  • Neurodevelopmental issues
  • Behavioral issues
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Altered reproductive development
  • Male fertility issues

Earlier in May 2005, researchers had identified an association between pregnant women’s exposure to phthalates and adverse effects on genital development in their male children.

Congress Passes Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 with Phthalate Ban

In August 2008, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA), which prohibits toys and child care items containing three phthalates (DEHP, DBP, and BBP) and also imposes an interim ban on three additional phthalates (DINP, DNOP, and DIDP) until the CPSC’s Chronic Hazard Advisor Panel (CHAP) had completed an investigation on those phthalates.

CHAP Finally Publishes Its Phthalate Report with Deadline for CPSC

Six years later in July 2014, the CHAP published a report recommending that the CPSC ban five phthalates, including a permanent ban on DINP, with a recommendation to also ban DIBP, DPENP, DHEXP, and DCHP. The report, called the first major regulatory document in the federal government highlighting the extent of the new science on the risks of phthalates, gave a deadline of January 14, 2015 for a final rule by the CPSC.

Litigation Follows Missed CPSC Phthalate Final Rule Deadline

Because a final rule had not been passed by the January 14, 2015 deadline, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, and the Breast Cancer Fund sued the CPSC.

Litigation Dismissed after CPSC Issues Delayed Phthalate Final Rule

In August 2017, a consent decree required the litigation to be dismissed after the CPSC issued a final rule, barring children’s products containing phthalates. In October 2017, the CPSC passed three to two on a final rule banning five phthalates, DINP, DIBP, DPENP, DNEXP, and DCHP. Why only three in favor of the rule? Those opposed felt that the data didn’t support the Commission’s decision. Their criticisms echoed those of the Toy Association, the trade association representing the toy industry, with a financial incentive to oppose this ruling.

Other Industries May Be Affected by Phthalate Ban

Because of the CPSC’s ruling banning certain phthalates in the manufacture of children’s toys, other industries may now be subject to scrutiny for phthalate use. Phthalates are used as a binder and plasticizer in thousands of consumer products. Lipsticks, nail polish, hair spray, and body wash often contain phthalates, as does fragrance. Household cleaners are also a common source.

Phthalates are used in vinyl flooring, lubricants, wood finishers, and vinyl in automobile interiors. The new car smell from hot plastic on a dashboard containing phthalates, when cooled, condenses to form an oily coating on the inside of the windshield. Medical devices also often contain these toxic chemicals.

Because phthalates are everywhere yet not listed on product labels, they are nearly impossible to avoid. Food packaging is a common source of phthalate exposure. Even milk packaged in glass has passed through milking machine plastic tubes. Phthalates are fat soluble and milk is full of lipids, so it pulls phthalates out of the plastic tubing into the milk.

California State Takes Initiative to Eliminate Phthalates

Regulation of chemical consumer products moves slowly in the US, however, state and federal regulations have succeeded in eliminating toxic chemicals from many products. In December 2013, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) added Diisononl phthalate (DINP) to its California Proposition 65: Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, as a chemical known to the State to cause cancer. California’s Proposition 65 protects the state’s drinking water sources from being contaminated with chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and requires businesses to inform Californians about exposures to those chemicals.

Absent federal and state regulation, there are things you can do to eliminate or at least limit phthalate exposure. By avoiding the use of plastics that are labelled 3, 6, or 7, you can decrease your exposure to phthalates in some products.

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