WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency says its crackdown on anti-microbials is aimed at fighting wild health claims like a plastic pen that said it was treated with additives to fight, among other things, skin and urinary tract infections.
But concerns that EPA is overstepping and could inappropriately regulate more general and valid claims has prompted a group of plastics firms and additive makers to form a coalition.
The Antimicrobial Treated Articles Coalition formed in April. The group does not have a detailed agenda or specific language for labels it is pushing, said David Sarvadi, a lawyer at the Washington law firm of Keller and Heckman LLP and spokesman for the coalition.
EPA has taken enforcement action against 13 firms since March 1997, and agency officials said they intend to continue that pace. The agency proposed new language for health claims in February, but a final decision still is pending.
Anti-microbial additives in plastics are projected to generate $125 million in U.S. sales in 2001, up from $83 million in 1996, according to a 1997 study by Freedonia Group Inc. in Cleveland. Plastics represent the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. market for specialty disinfectant and anti-microbial chemicals, which the report estimates at $560 million in 2001.
The coalition wants EPA to crack down on some specific health claims, but thinks there should be room for general bacterial claims.
``Obviously the suggestion that a pen can fight urinary tract infection is far-fetched, to be kind,'' Sarvadi said. ``The problem we are having now is that the EPA is painting with a broad brush.''
For example, he said EPA may want to allow general claims that an anti-microbial additive added to a countertop in a medical facility inhibits the growth of bacteria, even as the agency cracks down on specific health claims such as cutting boards that fight salmonella, Sarvadi said.
He also said that overly broad EPA enforcement snared a plastic cutting board maker, Lifetime Hoan Corp. in Westbury, N.Y., that was not making specific health claims and was urging consumers to follow normal hygiene procedures.
EPA inspectors told the company in a November 1997 plant visit — two months before they cited the firm — that its labels were fine, Sarvadi said.
But Lifetime paid a $66,000 fine in April and changed the wording of its labels because it was cheaper than continuing to argue with EPA, a Lifetime spokeswoman said.
EPA said it objected to Lifetime's claim that its cutting boards ``inhibit the growth of bacteria, mold, and mildew on the product'' and labels that mentioned that hospitals have used the product for years.
Instead, the company, which makes Farberware products, now must say the item includes material to ``inhibit the growth of bacteria that may affect the plastic in the product and does not protect users or others against food-borne bacteria.''
EPA has gone after only companies that are making health claims or whose labels may mislead people to think a product protects public health, said William Jordan, associate administrator in EPA's Antimicrobials Division.
The agency is willing to let firms make reasonable claims, he said. For example, they can say an anti-microbial agent fights bacteria that may weaken a product.
But EPA lawyer Phil Ross told a Washington conference in June that claims that a plastic toothbrush is treated with anti-microbial material to inhibit germs is a health claim because, he said, he is not aware of a toothbrush breaking in two because germs weakened its structure.
EPA is considering whether some claims for aesthetic benefits should be allowed because some firms argue that discoloration or odors from a product can indicate that the product is weakening structurally, Jordan said.
Eleven firms are in the ATAC coalition, but Sarvadi declined to identify them because ``they don't want to be targeted for enforcement.''
Hoechst Corp. of Warren, N.J.; additive maker Microban Products Co. in Huntersville, N.C.; and Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J., said they have participated in the coalition, although the latter said it was not active.
In the price-sensitive consumer products market, anti-microbials still offer plastics processors the promise of higher-profit markets.
Consumers are willing to pay 15-20 percent more for a product with an anti-microbial label, an important benefit in the commodity-oriented cutting board market, said Michael Cohen, president of Snow River Wood Products, a Brattleboro, Vt., carving board maker.
Snow River recently stopped making its anti-microbial high density polyethylene cutting boards because of EPA objections to claims it fought e. coli and salmonella.
The firm agreed June 2 to pay a $26,400 fine.