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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Phthalates in Plastics

Air Date: Week of

Plastic baby toys are soft, cuddly, and chewable, but the chemicals used to do that are possible health hazards and the subject of growing controversy. They are called phthalates (THALL-ates), and some European nations want to ban all toys that contain them. There is a chance that the United States may soon follow. It's not just toys, either. Researchers are coming up with evidence that chemicals in some of today's most common products could prove harmful to the human endocrine system. Living On Earth's Daniel Grossman has the story.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In recent years scientists have begun to understand how certain industrial chemicals can disrupt the body's communication network that controls reproduction, immune response, and mental functioning. Many of these chemicals, like PCBs and DDT, are no longer used in the United States. But river sediments remain laced with PCBs and DDT continues to blow across our borders from farm fields far away. And now researchers have evidence of
a more immanent threat. Some of today's most common consumer products, they say, could be harmful to health. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman reports.

MAN 1: All right, ready?

MAN 2: Yep. Ready as I'll ever be.

(Sound of a large object moving)

GROSSMAN: Two men in jeans are completing a kitchen renovation in a Boston suburb. With practiced efficiency they glue down the last sheet of a new vinyl floor. The pungent odor of adhesive and a newly-minted flooring mingle in the small room.

(Various small construction sounds: moving, hammering, pulling)

GROSSMAN: Half a billion square yards of this durable material are rolled out each year. Even more vinyl is used in most every imaginable consumer product, from car seats to shower curtains, making vinyl, or polyvinyl chloride, the second most common plastic in the world.

FINNEY: Vinyl is an incredibly useful plastic.

GROSSMAN: Dean Finney is a spokesperson for the Chemical Manufacturers Association.

FINNEY: It's low-cost, it's easily manufactured, it adds significantly to our enjoyment of living.

(A beach ball being blown up)

GROSSMAN: Manufacturers like vinyl because it has multiple personalities. It can be stiff and brittle like a vinyl record, or soft and pliable like this beach ball.

(Blowing continues)

GROSSMAN: What makes vinyl soft are chemicals called phthalates. The demand for these softening agents is so great that phthalates are among the world's most common synthetic chemical. The problem is that phthalates don't stay put, but seep out of vinyl products. And they're turning up in some unexpected places.

(Sound of a jet flying overhead, and lab sounds)

GROSSMAN: On the outskirts of Atlanta at the Centers for Disease Control is one of the world's premier laboratories for measuring toxic chemicals in humans.

(Beeping sounds)

GROSSMAN: Inside, chemist John Brock watches a machine take a tiny sample of blood from a vial.

(Beeping continues; other lab machine sounds)

GROSSMAN: The specimen is analyzed in a nearby machine. Five years ago Dr. Brock made a surprising discovery using this same set-up.

BROCK: I was asked to develop a new method to look for PCBs and pesticides in people. In the process of doing that, I found a bunch of other compounds that were there, that I didn't really expect. And these compounds that I found were at much higher levels than the thing I was asked to do. Turns out they were all phthalates.

GROSSMAN: And he found them in concentrations roughly 100 to 1,000 times greater than the levels of the PCBs and pesticides he was studying.

(A printer, beeps)

GROSSMAN: Why would there be phthalates in the blood?

BROCK: Phthalates are being used in floor coverings, in wall coverings, in paints, in perfumes. So phthalates are being used constantly around us. If you breathe them in your lungs are wonderful about picking up these compounds. And, you know, anything that makes it to your lungs goes in your blood. If you eat them, they're going to wind up in your blood.

(More printing and beeps; fade to sheets of paper being riffled)

GROSSMAN: Dr. Ted Shetler is seated in a cramped examining room of a clinic in East Boston. He's flipping through a dog-eared copy of Gray's Anatomy, an atlas of the body.

SHETLER: Here we're getting -- here we're getting -- this is an illustration of the male genitalia, showing the penis, scrotum with the testicles in it, the prostate gland, the urinary...

GROSSMAN: Dr. Shetler is a member of a government panel that's looking into how to test synthetic chemicals for their ability to interfere with the body's endocrine, or hormone, system, for chemical messaging. The panel came together after researchers began turning up birth defects in animals and problems connected to the reproductive system in humans. To illustrate, the doctor points to his reference book's drawing of a penis. Normally, a duct carrying urine and semen ends at the tip. But not always.

SHETLER: There is a condition called hypospadius, where this tip is actually somewhere back here, either on the underside of the shaft at this point, or all the way back at the base of the penis. That is a condition that has actually doubled in the United States over the last 20 years.

(A phone rings. A woman answers, "Urgent care, this is Gracie. How can I help you?")

GROSSMAN: Dr. Shetler says he himself sometimes sees this condition. And the doctor says there's also been a disturbing increase in cancer of the breast, prostate, and testicles, all organs connected to the reproductive system.

SHETLER: We're seeing changes in the frequency of a number of diseases, or birth defects, which could plausibly be associated with exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals. So that's the big picture, and phthalates sit in the middle of that, because they are a large family of chemicals that we are all exposed to at some level. And they have not been adequately studied for all of the things that we ought to be worried about that a chemical might cause.

GROSSMAN: Even so, there's already evidence that some phthalates could be causing a problem. The phthalate DEHP causes liver cancer in rats. And 2 recently published studies show that the male offspring of pregnant rats fed another phthalate are seriously deformed. Earl Gray is a biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency.

GRAY: The males are malformed, infertile, have low sperm counts, misshapen nonfunctional penises, hypospadius, missing parts of the reproductive system so the sperm actually can't get from the testes to the penis. So these are serious malformations.

GROSSMAN: Dr. Gray has confirmed these results in his own study. He says the phthalate is blocking the action of the male hormone testosterone during fetal development of the rats. And there are human implications.

GRAY: We have a pretty good idea that the action of the male hormone in human development is very similar. So there's some concern that these chemicals would produce the same types of effects in humans.

GROSSMAN: But Dean Finney of the Chemical Manufacturers Association says the research is not cause for concern.

FINNEY: Rodents are not little people.

GROSSMAN: Mr. Finney is a top executive at one of the 5 major phthalate producers.

FINNEY: It turns out that the rodent is a uniquely sensitive species to some of these phthalate esters. And it has to do with the metabolism and absorption in that species being radically different from that of a human.

GROSSMAN: But experts like Dr. Earl Gray say these differences between
rats and humans do not mean that phthalates have a clean bill of health.

(Beeping, many people milling)

GROSSMAN: Some experts say we should limit our exposure to phthalates. But that's not easy, because they're almost everywhere.

(More milling sounds)

GROSSMAN: When you buy food in the grocery store, you may be getting more than you bargained for. The softeners have recently been found in many brands of cheese. They're even found in the air you breathe. Children are at special risk.

(A child sings and twangs: "Twinkle twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are...)

GROSSMAN: A group of barefoot toddlers are hard at play in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, home. The room is strewn with colorful plastic toys. A sandy- haired 2-year-old holds a flute in one hand and a plastic truck in the other. When not tooting the flute, he's sucking the truck. And many chewable plastic toys are softened with phthalates. Even teethers and pacifiers.

(Singing finishes; toys rattle)

GROSSMAN: Dr. Erik Dybing of the Norwegian National Institute of Health has studied childhood exposure to phthalates.

DYBING: What we found is that the levels of phthalates in toys that young children may chew on are at a level that the dosages are higher than what we will want to see. This is an indication that you maybe expose your child to levels that are higher than what is deemed safe, given a reasonable margin of safety.

GROSSMAN: US companies contacted for this story, including Hasbro, and Mattel, refuse to discuss phthalates. They referred questions to David Miller, head of the Toy Manufacturers of America.

MILLER: The quantities of phthalates that leach out from vinyl toys do not put children at risk, and all of the scientific evidence that we have, and we have research that goes back into the 1980s, establishes conclusively that this is the case.

GROSSMAN: But the research shows some amount of the chemical is leaching out. And high-ranking government health officials, like Dr. Richard Jackson of the Centers for Disease Control, wonder if these chemicals belong in a baby's mouth.

JACKSON: I think the day will come that we will look at some kind of requirement that toys that contain high levels of phthalates, where a child is likely to put those in their mouth, that we will see these kinds of products being removed from sale.

GROSSMAN: The US Consumer Product Safety Commission is studying phthalate leaching from toys. It has the power to ban the softeners in toys for young children. However, few observers expect it to take such a dramatic step. But a ban is likely in some European countries. Austria, Denmark, and Sweden are poised to pass laws removing these products from the shelves. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.



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