NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Debate Over Plastic Softeners

September 28, 1999

Phthalates are chemicals that make plastic flexible so it can be used in tubes for blood transfusions, intravenous feeding and other life-support systems at hospitals and clinics around the world -- and in some children's toys.

Some scientists and consumer advocates say they may be dangerous because small amounts can leach into the bloodstream and, they say, animal studies have shown them to cause cancer and other serious ailments.

But a panel of scientists led by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop announced in June that phthalates (pronounced THAL- ates) are perfectly safe.

Here are some of the events leading up to the organization of the panel by the American Council on Science and Health.

  • In October 1998, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) asked manufacturers to stop using DINP phthalates to make plastic teethers, rattles and nipples because of safety concerns.
  • The next month, the National Environmental Trust and 11 other consumer groups sought a ban of phthalates from toys for children under age 5.
  • Previously, eight European countries had banned or regulated the substance in toys.
  • In December, the CPSC urged parents to throw away nipples and pacifiers containing DINP, but said it did not have enough evidence to issue a ban.

Scientists on the panel say the few studies that do show potential harm from phthalates are based on such small numbers of human cases as to be inconclusive, or are based on animal studies not applicable to humans.

On the other hand, a review of the animal and human toxicology literature, published in 1990, concluded that there was no evidence to support the hypothesis that phthalates caused kidney cancer in humans.

Source: Holcomb B. Noble, "A Debate Over Safety of Softeners for Plastic," New York Times, September 28, 1999.


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