A coalition of environmental groups is urging the U.S. government to change dramatically the way it regulates phthalates, to measuring cumulative exposure to the potentially toxic chemicals, rather than weighing individual exposures from single sources, such as PVC medical devices or cosmetics.
The environmental coalition, which includes Health Care Without Harm and the Environmental Working Group, contends the widely used chemicals should be considered together because government studies have found phthalates in people at levels much higher than previously estimated.
But the idea of looking at so-called ``additive exposure'' is drawing a sharp rebuke from the chemical industry, which argues that there is ``simply no evidence that the different phthalates have an additive effect.''
According to the Phthalate Esters Panel in Arlington, Va. - which is part of the American Chemistry Council - one study suggests that two of the most widely used phthalates, di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and di-(n-butyl) phthalate (DBP), do not have cumulative effects.
``To suggest that one should add up the various phthalate exposures to compute risk might be a good scare tactic, but it is not good science,'' the panel said.
It's a complex topic, but one that could affect the industry because 90 percent of phthalates are sold into plastics, particularly PVC products.
The environmental coalition is trying to draw public attention by targeting cosmetics. It unveiled an advertisement June 10 that it said will run in the New York Times, featuring a pregnant woman smelling a bottle of perfume with the caption ``Sexy for her. For baby, it could really be poison.'' It names cosmetic products that do and do not contain phthalates.
The group also has a television ad it hoped to run locally in Washington, but stations have refused to run it because it disparages some products, said Charlotte Brody, executive director of Washington-based HCWH.
To bolster its point that some people are exposed to troublesome amounts of phthalates, the coalition cited a Centers for Disease Control study. The study found that 5 percent of women of reproductive age in a sample of the general public had at least 75 percent of the amount of one phthalate, DBP, that may begin to harm reproductive tract development in baby boys.
The coalition said studies by the Food and Drug Administration and the National Toxicology Program in the United States and Health Canada - that country's version of the FDA - found that some highly exposed people could receive hazardous amounts of DEHP from medical devices.
But the reports also note that for most people, there is no evidence of harm from phthalates.
The phthalates panel interprets the CDC data differently. Marian Stanley, senior director with the panel, said the CDC study included only 98 women of childbearing age. She said the exposure level in the study was shown to be safe.