A group of obscure chemical compounds with the tongue-challenging name phthalates popped up in the news last week. Although you may have never heard of them, they're found in scores of consumer products. And they're linked by some people to a variety of health problems.
California became the first state to ban phthalates in toys and other products for children when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a hotly debated measure into law. A day later, an Oakland environmental group filed a complaint alleging that Apple Inc.'s iPhone is a health hazard because of the presence of phthalates in the headphone cord.
First things first. How do you pronounce phthalates?
What are they?
Phthalates are a family of chemical compounds that come in the form of oily, colorless liquids. There are dozens of types of phthalates; the California law bans six of them.
How are they used?
Phthalates have been used for about 50 years to make hard plastics softer and more flexible in such products as vinyl flooring and seat coverings, raincoats, shower curtains, garden hoses and even sex toys. They're also found in children's products such as teething rings and bibs as well as in bath, beach and pool toys.
In hospitals, phthalates can be found in intravenous medical tubing, examination gloves, catheters and blood storage bags. They are also used in nail polish to prevent chipping and in perfumes to help the fragrance last longer.
Phthalates are so ubiquitous that studies have found them in almost everyone tested.
What does the new law do?
It bans the sale, manufacturing or distribution of any toy or child-care product that contains more than 0.1% of di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). DBP is used in nail polish and paint as well as toys.
The law similarly bans any toy or child-care item intended for use by a child younger than 3 if that product can be placed in the child's mouth and contains more than 0.1% of diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP), or di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP). DINP is the phthalate most commonly found in toys.
When does the law go into effect?
Jan. 1, 2009.
Why are they being banned?
Advocates of the ban -- including environmentalists, Planned Parenthood and breast cancer awareness groups -- point to studies that have linked phthalates to reproductive problems, early onset of puberty, testicular cancer and liver and thyroid damage. Other research suggests phthalates may contribute to asthma and decreased lung function in men.
"When a child puts a phthalate-laden teether in her mouth, it's like sucking on a toxic lollipop," said Rachel Gibson, attorney for Environment California, the group that led the push for the ban.
Many phthalates are already banned in certain products in the European Union, 14 more countries and in San Francisco.
What do opponents say?
Trade groups such as the American Council on Chemistry and the Toy Industry Assn. say phthalates are harmless to humans and point to government reports to back up that view.
In 2003, for example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission concluded that the use of DINP in toys and other products for children presented "no demonstrated health risk."
Although studies have found phthalates to be toxic to laboratory animals, fewer studies on humans have been done. Opponents of the ban argue that the amount of phthalates given to test rats would be an unrealistically high amount if applied to humans.
What does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say?
"The health effects of phthalates in people are not yet fully known. . . . More research is needed."
What will manufacturers do now?
It would be impractical for toy makers to market one product line for California and another for elsewhere, said Joan Lawrence, a vice president at the Toy Industry Assn. As a result, she expects manufacturers will reformulate their products to eliminate phthalates no matter where the toys are sold.
The problem, Lawrence said, is that replacement substances are less tested than phthalates.
"It forces companies to go from a known and safe product to a lesser-known substance," she said.
Still, the new law forbids manufacturers from replacing phthalates with any known or likely carcinogen or "reproductive toxicant."
What about the iPhone?
The Center for Environmental Health in Oakland has accused Apple of violating a California law after a Greenpeace analysis found the phthalates DEHP and DBP in the vinyl cords of iPhone headphones.
The environmental group said it would file a lawsuit unless Apple recalled iPhones, paid a fine and either removed the phthalates or included a warning label with the product.
What does Apple say?
Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet would not comment on the environmental group's complaint, but she did note that Apple had previously committed to removing all PVC plastics, including those using phthalates, from its products by 2009.