Ph­tha­lates: Poi­son in our midst

Found in al­most any­thing made of plas­tic, ph­tha­lates have per­me­ated the very fab­ric of our so­ci­ety – with dire con­se­quences to sex­ual devel­op­ment.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - by PETE HAr­ri­Son

IMAG­INE a child sit­ting in his class­room, gaz­ing through the win­dow at the rain. He picks up his pen­cil and chews dis­tract­edly on the eraser at its top. Chem­i­cals, classed in Europe as “toxic to reproduction,” dis­solve in his saliva and en­ter his body.

It’s a sce­nario that may not be un­usual. A re­cent re­port by a con­sor­tium of 140 en­vi­ron­ment groups shows that po­ten­tially risky chem­i­cals are present in dozens of ev­ery­day plas­tic items – from shoes to erasers, from pen­cil cases to sex toys.

The study fo­cused on a group of chem­i­cals known as ph­tha­lates, six of which have been vir­tu­ally banned in toys in the Euro­pean Union since 1999 over fears they can dam­age the sex­ual devel­op­ment of chil­dren. But as the Euro­pean En­vi­ron­men­tal Bureau (EEB) found in its study, ph­tha­lates are present in items rou­tinely used by chil­dren and on sale in big su­per­mar­kets such as Car­refour and Tesco.

The study, based on a chem­i­cal anal­y­sis by PiCA, an in­de­pen­dent chem­i­cal lab­o­ra­tory in Ber­lin, found one pink pen­cil case with lev­els three times those which the EU says should be the max­i­mum in toys and “child­care ar­ti­cles.” A ph­tha­late that sci­en­tists sus­pect may be par­tic­u­larly harm­ful to hu­mans was found in an eraser at a level close to that which would be banned in a toy.

Con­cerns about ph­tha­lates are not new, and re­tail­ers sell­ing prod­ucts con­tain­ing them are not break­ing the law, be­cause the reg­u­la­tions do not cover ob­jects such as pen­cil cases and erasers. But the EEB study also found that re­tail­ers ap­pear to be ig­nor­ing a le­gal obli­ga­tion to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion about the pres­ence of ph­tha­lates to shop­pers. Less than a quar­ter of re­tail­ers in its sur­vey pro­vided sat­is­fac­tory an­swers to re­quests for in­for­ma­tion about chem­i­cals in their prod­ucts.

“All cit­i­zens ought to be given full in­for­ma­tion about prop­er­ties of chem­i­cals in the prod­ucts they buy,” said Chris­tian Schaible, EEB chem­i­cals pol­icy of­fi­cer. “A par­ent, for in­stance, should au­to­mat­i­cally be in­formed whether a pen­cil case for their child con­tains ph­tha­lates which can im­pair sex­ual devel­op­ment. Un­for­tu­nately sup­pli­ers are only obliged to give in­for­ma­tion un­der spe­cific con­di­tions. We have shown that not even this le­gal right is guar­an­teed in prac­tice.”

Car­refour said that it does ad­e­quately ad­dress re­quests for in­for­ma­tion on risky chem­i­cals and said it deals with such re­quests within 45 days. Tesco said it was aware of its du­ties and has its own code of prac­tice in place to keep wor­ry­ing chem­i­cals out of clothes and shoes. “We have worked closely with our sup­pli­ers to iden­tify these sub­stances and have re­placed them with suit­able al­ter­na­tives,” it said in a state­ment.

Re­duced fer­til­ity

Ph­tha­lates are a range of chem­i­cals reg­u­larly used to make plas­tics more flex­i­ble. There are about 25 of them, and in re­cent decades they have per­me­ated the very fab­ric of our so­ci­ety, right down to the shoes on our feet. They are in the air we breathe and the paint on our of­fice walls, they soften the vinyl floors of kitchens and bath­rooms, they put the flex in our shower cur­tains and elec­tric ca­bles.

In your car, ph­tha­lates coat the chas­sis against rust and soften the plas­tics of its doors, dash­board and the steer­ing wheel in your hands. They are in our food, some sci­en­tists think, af­ter leach­ing out of the pipes and plas­tics used in food pro­cess­ing ma­chin­ery. They are in our bod­ies.

The global chem­i­cals in­dus­try pro­duces nearly six mil­lion tonnes of ph­tha­lates ev­ery year. Some sci­en­tists, and an in­creas­ing num­ber of gov­ern­ments, have be­gun to sus­pect that ph­tha­lates might be con­nected to a mas­sive drop in male fer­til­ity glob­ally over the past few decades – in the de­vel­oped world, re­peated stud­ies have shown sperm counts have de­creased by about 50% in the past half cen­tury – as well as to prob­lems with the sex­ual devel­op­ment of boys in the womb.

The most volatile of the chem­i­cals dis­perse eas­ily from plas­tics and have been shown to in­ter­fere with the sex­ual devel­op­ment of fe­tal rats, by in­ter­rupt­ing the pro­duc­tion of testos­terone. Some stud­ies have sug­gested sim­i­lar ef­fects in hu­mans.

As well as the toy ban, the EU con­trols or bans cer­tain ph­tha­lates from things like cos­met­ics and paints. It has also be­gun to ex­am­ine re­strict­ing the use of some ph­tha­lates in other prod­ucts, a process that is likely to take years. The United States has limited the use of cer­tain ph­tha­lates in toys since 2008, and says it is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the safety of oth­ers. Aus­tralia bans the sale of items con­tain­ing more than 1% of a sin­gle ph­tha­late.

If there is a con­nec­tion be­tween ph­tha­lates and im­paired fer­til­ity in peo­ple, they would not be the first chem­i­cals to have had this im­pact. In July 10, 1976, an ex­plo­sion tore through a pes­ti­cide fac­tory in the small Ital­ian town of Seveso, re­leas­ing a dense vapour cloud laced with the chem­i­cal dioxin. No­body died, and the ac­ci­dent went largely un­no­ticed, at least ini­tially. But what fol­lowed gave sci­en­tists the first in­sight that tiny con­cen­tra­tions of chem­i­cals could have a dis­pro­por­tion­ate ef­fect on hu­man fer­til­ity.

A few hours af­ter the ex­plo­sion, burn-like le­sions be­gan ap­pear­ing on lo­cal chil­dren. In the weeks that fol­lowed many de­vel­oped chlo­racne, a se­vere skin dis­or­der typ­i­fied by acne-like black­heads, cysts and pus­tules. In the years af­ter the ac­ci­dent, an un­usu­ally high pro­por­tion of boys were born to par­ents ex­posed to the chem­i­cal cloud. Those same boys grew up to have ab­nor­mally low sperm counts, med­i­cal stud­ies later showed.

In­gest­ing poi­sons

Just as Seveso taught us a lot about diox­ins, we’re now learn­ing more and more about ph­tha­lates – not be­cause of one sin­gle in­ci­dent, but be­cause sci­en­tists are putting them un­der in­creas­ing scru­tiny in the quest to un­der­stand trends such as de­creased male fer­til­ity.

In preg­nant rats, nu­mer­ous stud­ies have proven that ex­po­sure to some ph­tha­lates

re­duces testos­terone lev­els in the male fe­tus, in­ter­fer­ing with nor­mal devel­op­ment of the pe­nis and de­scent of their tes­ti­cles. But it was not un­til 2005 that sci­en­tists made a link be­tween the chem­i­cals and changes in hu­mans.

A group of re­searchers at Rochester Uni­ver­sity, New York, stud­ied the mas­culin­ity of new­born boys. As an in­di­ca­tor, they mea­sured the dis­tance be­tween anus and the base of the pe­nis – the anogen­i­tal dis­tance – which is typ­i­cally twice as long in males as in fe­males, and is of­ten used by sci­en­tists as a marker of mas­culin­ity. Low anogen­i­tal dis­tances are as­so­ci­ated with prob­lems of re­pro­duc­tive health, such as un­de­scended testes or de­formed penises.

The re­searchers then com­pared that mea­sure­ment with the ph­tha­late lev­els in the urine of the in­fants’ moth­ers.

“We found that in hu­man male in­fants, as pre­dicted by an­i­mal stud­ies, when the mother was ex­posed to some ph­tha­lates, the boys had changes in their re­pro­duc­tive devel­op­ment, which was not fully mas­culinised,” says Shanna Swan, who led the study. Re­spected jour­nal En­vi­ron­men­tal Health

Per­spec­tives named Swan’s team’s study “paper of the year” in 2009 for its mas­sive im­pact on cur­rent think­ing about ph­tha­lates. The study was not per­fect – at just 134 in­fants, the sam­ple size was very small – but Swan is work­ing on a new, big­ger and more rig­or­ous study that could help set­tle the sci­ence.

Other sci­en­tists are also try­ing to pin down the link be­tween ph­tha­lates and changes in hu­mans. In an Ed­in­burgh, Scot­land lab­o­ra­tory, a mouse wan­ders through its cage to sip at some wa­ter tainted with plas­tic soft­en­ers. Un­der the skin on its back are grafted tiny pieces of tis­sue from the tes­ti­cles of a hu­man fe­tus. The ob­jec­tive is to di­rectly as­cer­tain if those soft­en­ers could be con­fus­ing our hor­mones and mu­tat­ing the gen­i­talia of un­born in­fants. Pro­fes­sor Richard Sharpe, an ex­pert in male re­pro­duc­tive health at Ed­in­burgh Uni­ver­sity and the leader of the study, be­lieves peo­ple will find a link be­tween our en­vi­ron­ment and life­styles and male re­pro­duc­tive health. “We have solid ev­i­dence tes­tic­u­lar can­cer has in­creased pro­gres­sively across Europe in the past 50 to 70 years,” he says, “and it has hap­pened in a space of time that co­in­cides with life­style and en­vi­ron­men­tal changes.”

Sharpe be­lieves that “un­der­stand­ing whether or not ph­tha­lates play any role in hu­man male re­pro­duc­tive dis­or­ders is piv­otal.” An­i­mal stud­ies, he says “point clearly to­ward ef­fects, but hu­man stud­ies are very mixed. We’ll have a much clearer idea in the next 12 months. If we don’t find any ef­fects of ph­tha­lates on the fe­tal hu­man testis, they re­ally drop down the list of sus­pects. If we find a pos­i­tive ef­fect, I think it could be the end of ph­tha­lates.”

Le­gal mea­sures

In Europe, the group tasked with eval­u­at­ing and re­strict­ing po­ten­tially risky chem­i­cals such as ph­tha­lates is the Euro­pean Chem­i­cals Agency (ECHA), based in Helsinki. Its main role is to im­ple­ment a 2007 law aimed at im­prov­ing un­der­stand­ing of and con­trol over 30,000 chem­i­cals reg­u­larly used around Europe that cur­rently face few reg­u­la­tions.

Known as REACH – Reg­is­tra­tion, Eval­u­a­tion, Au­tho­ri­sa­tion and Re­stric­tion of Chem­i­cals – the law was one of the most in­ten­sively lob­bied in Euro­pean his­tory. Euro­pean chem­i­cal firms op­posed it, as did the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Ge­orge W. Bush, which ar­gued it would choke off transat­lantic trade.

The law now forces com­pa­nies to reg­is­ter the chem­i­cals they want to sell; the agency is comb­ing through data given to it by the in­dus­try to de­cide which should be phased out fastest. From an orig­i­nal broad list of around 1,500 chem­i­cals of con­cern, 38 have so far been clas­si­fied as “sub­stances of very high con­cern” in­clud­ing four ph­tha­lates – DEHP, BBP, DBP and DIBP.

Many ac­tivists are un­happy with the pace of progress and feel the Agency should look be­yond the 38 sub­stances it is tack­ling. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and health cam­paign­ers, in­clud­ing Green­peace and the Health and En­vi­ron­ment Al­liance, have com­piled a list of 356 chem­i­cals they want curbed im­me­di­ately. The Euro­pean Trade Union Con­fed­er­a­tion has a list of 334 it wants banned from the work­place.

But the task of eval­u­at­ing the ev­i­dence is so huge, and the re­sources of the agency so limited, that even the ini­tial 38 chem­i­cals will take years to phase out or ap­prove. Geert Dancet, ECHA’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, says it may take un­til 2014 to de­cide how these first few chem­i­cals should be dealt with. “Then there are those chem­i­cals we don’t even know about yet, and in that case 2020 is the tar­get date.”

It’s not just chil­dren who are at risk. As well as test­ing chil­dren’s shoes, make-up bags and pen­cil cases, the Ber­lin lab­o­ra­tory tested sam­ples from the shaft of E09-039/10, a

Ever present dan­ger: A re­port by a con­sor­tium of 140 en­vi­ron­ment groups say the po­ten­tially risky group of chem­i­cals, ph­tha­lates, are present in dozens of ev­ery­day plas­tic items – from shoes to erasers, pen­cil cases, toys, food con­tain­ers and even nail pol­ish.

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