Two groups call for action after an analysis of new state data shows that a broad range of items contain phthalates, which may cause health problems.
By Kevin Miller, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
A chemical suspected of causing health problems is found in 130 products sold in Maine, from hair conditioner to greeting cards, according to a new analysis of manufacturers’ data filed with state regulators.
As of December, manufacturers were required to report to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection any children’s products sold in the state that contain a class of plastic-softening agents known as phthalates. Maine and Washington are the only states to mandate such reports, although Maine’s more sweeping rules also captured household products such as paint and cleaners.
An analysis released Thursday by two Maine-based advocacy organizations, the Environmental Health Strategy Center and Prevent Harm, shows that 14 manufacturers added phthalates to a wide range of products, frequently as “fragrance.”
The most common uses of phthalates were in household paints and primers or in cleaning products, such as disinfectants and surface cleaners. The report, titled “What Stinks? Toxic Phthalates in Your Home,” says phthalates also were found in hair conditioners and hair styling products, dolls, toy accessories, greeting cards and in the little plastic tubes found on the end of shoestrings or clothing drawstrings.
The list of manufacturers includes major household companies such as Procter & Gamble, 3M, Gap Inc. and American Greetings.
“This report is made possible because of the breadth of reporting that Maine requires,” the report says. “The data reported includes never-before-available information showing phthalates in products like paint and cleaners.
“In total, the products reported represent just the tip of the iceberg of the widespread use of phthalates in the marketplace. Much more proactive action from decision-makers in government and commerce is needed to eliminate harmful exposure to toxic phthalates, what many call ‘the everywhere chemicals.’ ”
There have been years of robust debate in the United States surrounding the safety of phthalates and similar compounds.
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown,” research on laboratory rats has shown that some types of phthalates can affect the animals’ reproductive system.
The National Institutes of Health’s fact sheet on phthalates lists the plasticizing agent as a potential disruptor of the body’s hormone-regulating endocrine system, while the National Toxicology Program classified the chemicals in 2014 as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
Last year, the European Union began to require special approval before manufacturers there can use certain phthalates in most consumer products.
But the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing chemical manufacturers, has defended the safety of phthalates while touting their versatility and durability.
“Phthalates have been thoroughly studied and reviewed by a number of government scientific agencies and regulatory bodies worldwide and these agencies have concluded that phthalates used in commercial products do not pose a risk to human health at typical exposure levels,” a statement on the council’s website says.
In 2008, Maine lawmakers passed a first-in-the-nation bill that allows the state to require disclosure of products containing designated “priority” chemicals and creates a framework for banning the sale of products made with certain chemicals. The Kid-Safe Products Act was passed in response to growing frustration over Congress’ unwillingness to update a federal toxics law widely regarded as ineffective.
To date, the Maine DEP has required notifications for seven types of chemicals and banned the sale of reusable food and beverage containers or baby food packaging containing bisphenol-A, or BPA.
Yet environmental groups also have accused the DEP of moving too slowly or too cautiously to regulate chemicals.
The coalition of groups that submitted the original draft of the phthalates rule wanted it to apply not only to products that targeted children, but also to those that could be used by pregnant mothers. However, the LePage administration changed the rule so that it was limited to children’s products.
Kerri Malinowski, who heads the DEP’s “Safer Chemicals” program, said that the reported uses of phthalates matched up with her expectations. Although manufacturers are only required to file one report with the DEP – rather than annual reports – any new products containing phthalates sold in Maine would have to be reported separately to the department.
“We have found manufacturers are interested in complying,” Malinowski said. “They have called to ask questions and they have been very cooperative.”
Groups such as the Environmental Health Strategy Center criticized the DEP last year for not going further on phthalates by requiring manufacturers to report the chemicals’ usage in products aimed at pregnant women. Scientific evidence shows that phthalates and many other chemicals readily pass from the mother to an unborn child or during breastfeeding.
But Emma Halas-O’Connor, campaign manager for the Environmental Health Strategy Center, pointed out that Maine’s reporting requirements are stronger than those in Washington state in one key aspect. Maine mandates that manufacturers also report phthalates’ usage in paints, maintenance and cleaning products because of the potential for children to be exposed to those products in the household.
“We knew that phthalates were used sometimes as ingredients in fragrance in personal care products, but to see phthalates as fragrance in cleaning products and sometimes paint, that was new for us,” Halas-O’Connor said.