The Huffington Post Web site has been host to a mini-debate on the safety of phthlates in recent weeks, including most recently a post from Mark Schapiro, author of the book "Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products." His post was in response to a Feb. 6 entry by Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, which attacked Schapiro's credibility. Here's a small taste of the debate. Whelan: Phthalates are chemicals that are used to make plastics flexible -- and they have been widely used for some fifty years in everything from plastic shower curtains to medical devices to rubber duckies. Phthalates are invisible, unfamiliar (who can pronounce the word, much less spell it correctly?), and totally unknown to almost every parent. So when an activist like Mark Schapiro -- author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products -- claims that "American infants are...sucking on phthalate-contaminated teething rings, ingesting toxins directly into their still-developing, vulnerable bodies," you have the perfect storm: a purportedly hostile, invisible agent attacking your baby. The scaremongers have got you -- all because you are a loving, caring parent. Contrast the activist scare about phthalates with the scientific reality: there is no evidence whatsoever -- not even a hint -- of health problems from phthalates in any consumer products used by children or adults. That is the conclusion of esteemed scientists from the Food and Drug Administration, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and universities around the world -- and a blue ribbon panel on phthalates and health chaired by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. The issue has been addressed and studied extensively. There are more than 1,000 articles on phthalates in the scientific literature. The claimed health risk is totally bogus, based exclusively on results of high-dose rodent experiments. If one were to assume that phthalates should be regarded as dangerous because vast quantities make rodents sick, then we would also have to fear the myriad collection of natural foods (like mushrooms, table pepper, coffee, and nutmeg) that contain chemicals that cause cancer in rodents -- as plenty of all-natural chemicals do, without any corresponding illness in humans. The scare tactics on phthalates worked like a charm recently in California, since Gov. Schwarzenegger banned most forms of phthalaltes, declaring, "we must take this action to protect our children. These chemicals threaten the health and safety of our children at critical stages of their development." Building on this momentum, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) introduced legislation to ban phthalates nationwide. These regulatory moves will do absolutely nothing to promote the health of children. They will only serve to remove from the market safe, useful products. Schapiro: In her post, Dr. Whelan, President of the American Council for Science and Health, claims that "there is no evidence whatsoever--not even a hint--of health problems from phthalates used by children or adults." Alas, there is far more than a "hint" of such evidence. My book contains abundant, peer-reviewed evidence of such claims. Dozens of studies of rodents and, increasingly, of humans have demonstrated precisely that: the evidence suggests strongly that phthalates disrupt the developing endocrine system of infant boys (at this stage, most of the research does focus on boys because phthalates affect production of the male sexual hormone, testosterone). A study published last week in the journal Pediatrics found evidence of phthalates in every one of the 163 infants under thirteen months that a team of scientists tested for the synthetic substance. Why does this matter? Studies in Denmark concluded in 2006 that high levels of phthalates in mother's breast milk contributed to lower levels of testosterone production in their male offspring in the first three months of life. Closer to home, scientists in the United States have come to similar conclusions. Dr. Shanna Swan, Director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the Rochester University School of Medicine and Dentistry, showed a corollary between the phthalate intake of pregnant women and decreased ano-genital distance in their male offspring. That study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a scientific journal published by the U.S.-government funded National Institutes of Health. She told me shortly after the study was published that one of her fears is that phthalates could be contributing to "the feminization of infant boys." There's much more if you click through to the links. It's interesting... about six months ago, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called me with some questions about phthalates, and I told him that it didn't seem to be a front-burner issue for the plastics industry. Other issues including bag bans and PET water bottles were getting more attention in the mainstream press. I think that's still the case, but I have a feeling that a lot of people have at least a crude understanding of this issue today.
Phthalate debate rages
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