A new study suggests a decrease in banned chemicals used in personal products led to an increase in chemical substitutes with unknown effects.
Exposure to phthalates, a class of troublesome chemicals banned from children's toys in 2009, are decreasing in humans, while replacements untested on humans are increasing, according to a new study.
Phthalates are commonly used to soften plastics and are found in everyday items such as fragrances, nail polish, building materials and other plastic products. Studies have linked exposure to DNA damage in sperm, decreased sperm counts, higher pre-term delivery risks in women and malformation in males' genital development, according to Ami Zota, the lead researcher on the new University of California-San Francisco study.
An outcry from the public and advocacy groups led to a federal ban of phthalates used in children's toys and other products in 2009. Out of the six phthalate compounds in question, a permanent federal ban was placed on three of them but was temporary for the other three, which have since become replacements for the banned chemicals in product manufacturing. The result, according to a report published in a recent issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, is that replacement compounds are increasingly showing up in the population without concrete testing of their effects on humans.
"There is less data on the health effects of the three temporarily banned phthalates in human populations," said Zota, an assistant professor at George Washington University in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. "Animal testing shows that replacement phthalates, DiNP and DiBP, may also affect the endocrine system – so they may also be hormone disruptors."
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, hormone disruptors are chemicals that adversely affect the endocrine system and can damage reproductive, immune and neurological functions.
The study, which used urine samples from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of more than 11,000 participants over 10 years showed that the three phthalates that were temporarily banned are showing up in increasing amounts, while those banned permanently have decreased.
Zota said DiNP, which is used as a replacement for the banned chemicals in toys, floorings and PVC plastics, increased 150% in that period. DiNP was recently added to California's list of chemicals known to cause cancer, which could cause warning labels to be placed on products containing the chemical.
Chemical representatives say the chemicals pose little threat to human health.
"Information collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the last 10 years indicates that despite the fact that phthalates are used in many products, exposure is extremely low. Much lower than the levels considered safe by regulatory agencies," said Anne Kolton, communication director of the American Chemistry Council.
Zota said the study highlights a disturbing trend: replacing one harmful chemical for another without knowing the impact.
"Substituting one problematic chemical for another is a reoccurring theme in environmental health," Zota said. "I think consumers have a right to know so they can make more informed decisions."
Though advocacy groups appreciate that the study shows policy can make a measurable difference in human health, Andy Igrejas, the national campaign director of the advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said there is still a lot to be done in terms of chemical transparency in products.
According to Igrejas, it's difficult for consumers to regulate their chemical exposure because of industry loopholes such as the designation of a product as a "fragrance," which exempts the manufacturer from listing "trade secrets" or the chemicals used.
"The absence of information is something that doesn't mean it's safe based on everything we know about chemicals," Igrejas said. "The next frontier is a more comprehensive system with greater transparency and research on what is actually used in products and the effects."
Though reducing exposure to chemicals is hard because of loopholes, here are some tips from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families on lessening exposure to phthalates:
•Reduce or avoid consumption of processed food, which is exposed to chemicals through food packaging processes.
•Read the labels on personal care products, and seek companies that have reformulated to avoid chemicals.
•Filter drinking water.
•Use only microwave-safe containers when microwaving plastic.