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A Reckoning For Phthalates

As the plastics additives attract renewed scrutiny, industry looks for replacements

by Michael McCoy
June 22, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 25


Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

Phthalates are everywhere. Dozens of vinyl products we use every day are made flexible and more durable with phthalate plasticizers.

But their ubiquity goes deeper than that. A 2009 report on human exposure to chemicals published by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention found measurable levels of many phthalate metabolites in the bodies of almost everybody tested.

The report made clear that finding metabolites in detectable amounts does not imply adverse health effects. Nonetheless, environmental activists have been quick to capitalize on the notion that phthalates are coursing through virtually everyone’s veins. The fact that many phthalates are known endocrine-disrupting chemicals is the source of additional unease.

In fact, concerns about phthalates date back to the 1990s. U.S. companies have been prohibited from using certain phthalates in children’s products since 2008. Similar rules are in effect in Europe.

Now, after some years of relative quiet, controversy over phthalates is heating up again. Prodded by environmental groups, major home improvement retailers recently told their suppliers to remove phthalates from vinyl flooring by the end of this year. And the Consumer Product Safety Commission is proposing to expand the restrictions on phthalates in toys and child care products.

What follows are three articles that examine where phthalates stand today.

First, Senior Editor Britt Erickson explores how retailers and regulators are going beyond the relatively modest baby product restrictions and starting to take the ax to phthalates in large-volume construction and consumer applications.Next, Senior Correspondent Alexander H. Tullo looks at how chemical companies, some of which are phthalate manufacturers themselves, are vying to commercialize phthalate replacements. Finally, Senior Correspondent Stephen K. Ritter takes a step back to explain how the shape and molecular weight of many phthalates contribute to their ability to disrupt the endocrine system.

When it comes to phthalates, there are no easy answers. As Ritter points out, the synthetic materials made possible by phthalates have become essential to a successful modern society. Society is now trying to decide if that success has come at too great a cost.



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