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The phthalates scare: We are not at risk

Today we face a clash between well-intentioned lawmakers and scientists.

Lawmakers in many states, eager to demonstrate their willingness to respond to consumer concerns, are pushing for a ban on a commonly used chemical whose safety is unquestioned in the scientific community. The specific issue involves plasticizers known as phthalates and environmentalists who believe babies are at risk from exposure to these chemicals.

In the half century since phthalates were created, applications for their use have expanded. Consider what we witnessed in America's hospitals. Use of pliable plastics have allowed syringes to replace fragile glass; flexible feeding tubes and blood bags have improved a medical practitioner's ability to replace lost blood and fluids and deliver measured doses of medication. All these chemically created products are in intimate contact with patients and they are safe.

Phthalates make plastics pliable and are used in the creation of automobile dashboards and floor mats. They are present in sneakers and rain boots and in rubber ducks and other children's toys. Today that is the crux of the issue that is forcing lawmakers and scientists to opposite sides of the equation.

Lawmakers -- representing the concern of parents influenced by certain environmentalists -- are calling for an outright ban of phthalates from children's toys because of the misguided belief that by exposing children to toys made with these chemicals we are putting their health at risk.

Phthalates have a long history of attacks by environmental groups dating back more than 30 years. Even then babies were of prime consideration. Few chemicals have undergone such extensive testing and survived as being safe. In fact, diisononyl phthalate, the most commonly used phthalate in children's toys, has been subjected to more than 200 tests. Here's what some of those studies concluded:

A panel headed by former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop found: "Consumers can be confident that (phthalate-containing) toys and medical devices are safe. The panel's findings confirm what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have been saying about these products all along. There is no scientific evidence that they are harmful to children or adults."

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has rejected a petition to ban vinyl toys after carefully calculating the likely exposure to a child. It examined how babies and toddlers mouth their toys and concluded total mouthing time for babies three to 12 months old is about 10 minutes per hour (less for older children), including pacifiers, bottles, their fingers and toes, and whatever else happens to be within reach.

Soft vinyl toys containing DINP were sucked on for under 11 seconds per hour, or less than five minutes a day. The CPSC said a baby would have to suck for about 10 times as long before he or she could consume enough DINP to have any potential adverse effects.

Other studies include the European Union's Institute for Health and Consumer Protection which concluded, "The end products containing diisononyl phthalate (clothes, building materials, toys and baby equipment) and the sources of exposure (car and public transport interiors, food and food packaging) are unlikely to pose a risk for consumers (adults, infants and newborns) following inhalation, skin contact and ingestion."

Today, with no new scientific evidence, we are again challenging phthalates as dangerous to babies and threatening to ban them. These are products that have survived the toughest test of all, the test of time. There is no evidence that babies or anyone else has ever been harmed by them.

Eliminating phthalates from consumer products would be a true challenge. Even more worrisome, however, is the notion that any replacement would ever be able to pass the extreme scrutiny diisononyl phthalate and other phthalates have.

There is nothing wrong with examining the products our children come into contact with to be sure they pose no health risks. However, in this case, it would be a great mistake to ban what has been proven to be a benign product without some further scientific evidence.

William S. Knowles won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001. He lives in St. Louis.

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