No, this is not a post about great deals on credit cards, although a lot of money hangs in the balance. It’s about plying on consumer fears. And it’s about science literacy—the danger of making public policy based on out-of-context facts and ideology.
Through Friday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) is holding public meetings in preparation for issuing a final report on restricting phthalates and phthalate substitutes.
Here’s the background. Found in children’s products and tubing, phthalates are used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride more flexible. In 2008, President Bush signed into law the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which set stricter regulations, particularly on the elements used to make consumer products.
To date, based on the public hearings, the CHAP appears to be bumbling its way through the science. Here’s five things that government regulators should keep top of mind:
(1) Stick to science. Focus on health risk not fear. U.S. regulators rely on risk-based analysis—documenting actual health dangers. Yet CHAP seems to be edging towards a precautionary model, reacting to anti-plastic public fear campaigns now in high gear.
(2) Not all phthalates are created equal. So-called low-density phthalates—DEHP, BBP, DBP, and DIBP—widely used in children’s toys and medical tubing, are less stable and release outgasses. In contrast, high-density phthalates such as DINP, DIDP, and DPHP are tightly bound, more stable and resilient. They offer significant benefits for millions of uses, many with no safe or effective alternatives. Don’t confuse the types.
(3) Measure costs and benefits of potential alternatives. CHAP appears tempted to regulate in a world with no trade-offs. The profile of each phthalate must be compared to the potential risks, known and unknown, of a substitute. Reformulating products are costly, and the consumer pays in the end.
(4) Consider regulatory precedents. The panel has previously seemed to ignore reviews by other regulatory bodies. For example, the EU has classified low phthalates as reproductive toxicants, but does not regulate tightly bound high plasticizers such as DINP, DIDP, and DPHP, which are considered safe. Will CHAP take an anti-science “one size fits all” approach?
(5) Weigh the evidence. It is not clear whether CHAP is considering the weight of the evidence presented and “all relevant data.” According to last year’s report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, phthalates do not pose a health hazard in any usual way in which someone might be exposed to soft plastics. “Phthalates are metabolized and excreted quickly and do not accumulate in the body,” it concluded. That report endorsed the findings in 2004 and 2010 studies by the Children’s National Medical Center and George Washington University School of Medicine that showed no adverse effects in organ or sexual functioning in adolescent children exposed to phthalates as neonates. Another recent study has found that even high levels of DEHP have shown no effect on the genital development of marmosets—let alone humans.
In sum, no studies using oral doses (as humans are exposed) have found evidence that plasticizers are toxic or are likely to cause cancer or have strong estrogenic effects, as critics often allege. Federal regulators need be careful about demonizing proven safe chemicals, and replacing them with potentially risky substitutes that have not been tested. Will CHAP follow the science?