WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency is considering tougher rules that would prohibit health claims for some treated plastic products, such as cutting boards and toys, including tightening the claims companies have been allowed to make.
EPA officials — who have stepped up enforcement in the last few months — say their rules will simply clarify an existing ban on health claims.
But one private lawyer who follows the issue said the current law is unclear and enforcement has been sketchy, so many firms that cross the line may need to rethink what they put on labels.
The agency, for example, may reverse itself and not allow wording it had approved when it fined Pawtucket, R.I.-based Hasbro Inc. for claiming some plastic toys protect children from infectious diseases, said Frank Sanders, the director of EPA's Antimicrobials Division.
In that instance, EPA allowed the company to say that the toys were treated with a material that ``inhibits the growth of bacteria in plastic.'' But that may not stick.
``We allowed that because the rules were not clear,'' Sanders said. ``We've told Hasbro that language may not be suitable.''
The new rules are likely to allow claims that the treatment protects the product, but will have a higher standard for treated plastic that makes claims such as it protects children from germs or fights food-poisoning bacteria salmonella or E. coli, he said.
A company is likely to be able to make tougher health claims as long as it scientifically documents them, Sanders said.
``What people are doing is stretching it in an effort to sell a product,'' he said. ``They are misleading the public.''
The maker of the pesticide that Hasbro used, Microban, said the toy maker will be able to demonstrate its claims are valid. Glenn Cueman, president of Microban Products Co. in Huntersville, N.C., said he is waiting for EPA to develop a new process for evaluating the data.
William Jordan, associate director of EPA's Antimicrobial's Division, said it could be a slow process to develop all the rules because EPA wants to make sure the treatment works as advertised and is not being used just to sell more cutting boards or toys.
``The kind of things we are seeing in the marketplace, like the cutting boards that kill bacteria, represent a fundamentally different kind of anti-microbial use in products,'' Jordan said.
James Wright, a Manassas, Va., lawyer, said it is hard to tell what the agency's new rules will look like. ``It is anybody's guess as to where we will be three months from now'' when interim guidelines are completed, said Wright.
EPA has penalized several companies in the past few months, including plastic cutting board makers Joyce Chen Inc. and Ecko, for making claims the agency said were unsubstantiated.
Firms can avoid many of those problems by reaching an agreement with EPA on what language they can use. Firms are likely to get quick action because of EPA's heightened concerns, Wright said.