NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Scare Campaign Over Plastic Softeners Collapses

June 22, 1999

A distinguished panel of 17 scientists and physicians has debunked a scare campaign organized by activist groups last fall. The controversy surrounded chemicals known as phthalate esters which were used in children's vinyl toys and teething rings. Organizers of the scare campaign claimed the chemicals caused cancer -- prompting panic among parents and the withdrawal of countless toys from store shelves.

Also, extremists in a group called Health Care Without Harm had declared war on DEHP, which is a member of the same chemical family and has been used for decades in medical devices to make them soft and pliable.

  • The scientific panel, under the auspices of American Council on Science and Health, could find no evidence that either chemical used in toys and medical devices caused a danger to adults or infants.
  • Without DEHP, the chemical used in medical devices such as blood bags, catheters and a variety of other medical devices, a wide range of life-saving implements would lack either the flexibility, transparency or shelf-life to be of much use, the experts said.
  • The panel concluded that "DEHP, as used in medical devices, is not harmful to humans even under chronic or higher-than-average conditions of exposure."
  • It added that DEHP "confers considerable benefits to certain medical devices and procedures and its elimination without a suitable substitute could pose a significant health risk to some individuals."

Former U.S. Surgeon General E Everett Koop, who chaired the panel, is taking the scare-mongers to task -- writing that this "ceaseless obsession with ousting the frequently nonexistent bogeymen from our chemical cornucopia does quite a lot to strengthen the ranks of consumers groups but very little to actually improve the health and quality of our lives."

He adds that "while it provides television news magazines with a well-worn story line, it ultimately diverts our attention from real opportunities to enhance life and longevity."

Source: C. Everett Koop (Dartmouth College), "The Latest Phony Chemical Scare," Wall Street Journal, June 22, 1999.


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