Phthalates.. Another Chemical Curve-Ball

Phthalates.. Another Chemical Curve-Ball

by: Nate Furler, Marketing Specialist

“That’s the nature of science – one answer leads to another question.” Mark Schapiro

Here at the Co-op, we are faced with the daunting task of attempting to carry the safest and highest quality products we can.  After all, we don’t just carry products, we care about the products we carry.

After beginning research on the chemicals known as phthalates, the question “Where do I even start?” comes to the forefront of my mind.

The EU (European Union) has banned phthalates, yet the United States still allows their widespread use.  You may have seen the recent segment on “60 Minutes” or a story called “Toxic Toys” which ran as a part of “NOW” in 2008 on PBS.  If not, both can be found online, and both make compelling arguments about the safety of phthalates, particularly pertaining to boys under the age of three.  The chemical is suspected of disrupting hormonal development, possibly altering the size of a baby boy’s genitals and potentially causing reproductive problems and even cancer when kids grow up.

So, what are phthalates?  They are the chemical in plastic that give it the flexibility and softness that the manufacturer desires.  But phthalates are not only in plastics.  Phthalates are also used in lotions, perfumes, shampoos and cosmetics like lipstick and foundation.  They make the scent and color last longer.  Phthalates are so ubiquitous that there are said to be traces found in every single human tested for them in the United States.

The question of what plastic items are safe and which contain phthalates is difficult because labeling is not required for the chemical.  As seen on the segments mentioned prior, two similar looking toys wind up with one containing and one free-of phthalates.  In the segment, they first test to see if the particular plastic used to make the toy is PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride).  If they test positive for PVC, then they are chopped and ground up and tested for their level of phthalates.  It is most certain that if an item is labeled as being a #3 plastic – PVC – it will contain phthalates.  Each toy was found to have different levels of phthalates, some of which were off the charts according to scientists.  As the investigation evolved, you are made aware that at the factories where these toys are made, there are two separate lines.  One line for toys destined for the EU that does not contain phthalates, and one for toys sent to the US that do.

So, what information did the EU have that the US was not privy to?  Nothing.  In fact, the evidence that was presented by US scientists from their studies was exactly what the EU cited in their ruling to ban phthalates.  The interesting explanation given for why this happens to be the case is the EU’s stance of using the “precautionary principle.”  The precautionary principle can be thought of as “better safe than sorry.”  If there is a chance that this chemical ingredient may actually be the cause of these abnormalities in humans and rats, then they choose to play it safe and not take the risk of harming people, animals, and the planet.  On the other hand, scientists in the United States are forced to prove beyond a doubt that these same chemicals are doing harm before any action is taken.

It is presumed that corporations do not wish to change their products because of the expense that would be incurred due to switching to “safer” chemicals used in place of phthalates.  However, this argument has proven to be invalid since there’s been no economic strain in the EU because of just such substitutions.

In researching the issue of phthalates, I realized a further point that I feel is necessary to illustrate.  Here at the Co-op, we operate under the very same “precautionary principle” exhibited by the EU.  It isn’t a matter of being right, wrong, better or elite.  It is a matter of exercising safety and caution even when the evidence may be inconclusive.  Our customers, member-owners, staff, and the community expect nothing less from the people and products that comprise this organization.

Here’s a list of different phthalates and where you’ll most likely find them in the United States:

Diisononyl phthalate [DINP]: garden hoses, shoes, shoe soles, toys, and construction materials.

Di-n-butyl phthalate [DBP]: cellulose plastics, solvents for dyes, food wrap (Oneota Co-op carries Natural Value plastic wrap and bags which are free of phthalates), adhesives, perfumes, cosmetics, skin emollients, hairspray, nail polish, insect repellents.

Diisodecyl phthalate [DIDP]: automobile undercoating, wires and cables, shoes, carpet backing, pool liners.

Butyl benzyl phthalate: vinyl tile, conveyor belts, artificial leather and traffic cones.

Di-n-octyl phthalate [DOP]: flooring materials, carpet tile, canvas tarps, notebook covers. DOP used to be utilized in the production of medical blood bags. It was one of the most common plasticizers in production with about 9 tons of DOP produced every year until 1987 when it was suspected of causing cancer. They stopped using it in blood bags when it was found to be leaching into the stored blood.

Di-n-hexyl phthalate: automobile parts, tool handles, dishwasher baskets, flooring, tarps and flea collars.