WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency last week proposed cracking down on claims made by plastics manufacturers about the germ-fighting capabilities of products ranging from cutting boards to toys.
The Feb. 3 EPA proposal would prohibit all health marketing claims in the fast-growing area of anti-microbial protection, and preservatives added to plastic, wood and other products to protect them from decay and, some say, slow the growth of bacteria harmful to people.
EPA officials say the health claims are exaggerated by some companies. For several months, the agency has been charging firms, including Hasbro Inc., with violations. Some companies have argued that the EPA rules were vague, but this new plan is aimed at clarifying any questions and clamping down on language the agency previously would have allowed.
``For the most part, we have generally taken a very hard line on the claims made,'' said Walter Francis, senior adviser in the EPA's Antimicrobials Division. ``There seems to be no end to the proliferation of uses and no end to the marketing some companies can come up with.''
In mid-January the agency told at least six plastic kitchenware manufacturers to stop shipping products that made health claims, and in early December it charged one of the leading manufacturers of anti-microbial additives, Microban Products Co. in Huntersville, N.C., with improperly claiming that products treated with its material protect children from E coli and other dangerous bacteria.
Microban President Glenn Cueman said the dispute with EPA is over semantics, and his company has done nothing wrong. Microban, whose additive went into some Hasbro products, will be able to prove its claims, and is waiting for the EPA to tell companies how to do that, he said.
``I have 14 years of data, extensive data, that shows the efficacy of these products,'' he said. ``Industry will submit a lot of data saying this is pretty legitimate stuff.''
But a suburban Washington lawyer who represents companies on anti-microbial issues said it will be very difficult for many companies to support health claims.
The chemical in plastic cutting boards or telephones may suppress germs after 10 minutes, but that is not likely to be quick enough to satisfy EPA that public health is protected, said James Wright, a lawyer in Manassas, Va.
``I think this is a case where industry failed to police itself,'' Wright said. ``They permitted the bad actors to get away with it, and now all of the industry is suffering.''
William Jordan, associate director of the Antimicrobials Division, said research is very new on evaluating health claims of anti-microbial chemicals inside of a product. ``We are really pushing the science,'' he said.
Consumer surveys could be very important for companies in demonstrating how people perceive an anti-microbial agent's marketing label, and in making a case that the label is not overstating the product, said John Dubeck, a lawyer with Keller & Heckman LLP in Washington. Proving a health claim will be difficult but not impossible, he said.
Some manufacturers were critical of the EPA's latest enforcement efforts. Inspections took place Jan. 13 at the National Housewares Manufacturing Association show in Chicago.
Takashi Shioya, president and chief executive officer of Pacific International Group, a San Clemente, Calif., distributor of plastic and rubber cutting boards, said EPA should have issued warnings. Previously, the agency never had said it had a problem with the firm's products, which are registered with the EPA and the Japanese government, he said.
``Their definition is constantly changing,'' he said. ``They were kind of lenient in the past. ... They also admit that the way they handled [the housewares show] was not very good.''
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency is reluctant to comment on enforcement operations but feels ``they are justified in this.'' She added, however, that ``perhaps they don't always happen the way you'd like them to.''
Another company cited in the housewares show operation, Lifetime Hoan Corp., was allowed to continue shipping its products Jan. 29, after it changed labels to incorporate language suggested by the EPA, the company said in a statement. Lifetime, based in Westbury, N.Y., manufactures plastic kitchen products under the Farberware name.
A third company, Carrollton, Texas-based Dexas International Inc., also known as Decorator House Inc., said it was in discussions with EPA and understands the problems in ``interpreting and applying these complex and sometimes vague laws.''
At the Housewares show, EPA also took action against Arrow Plastics Manufacturing Inc. in Elk Grove Village, Ill.; Acrylic Plastic Products Inc. in Jackson, Miss.; Better House Corp. in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Bradshaw International Inc. in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.