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IFL on phthalates portion of the Time piece on chemicals

Posted by: Unknown on Monday, April 12, 2010 at 8:31:32 am

A few months ago, I wrote on the dangers of great news headlines making for bad government policy, especially when it comes to technical scientific matters.  Well, it appears the hype is back.

Today, Time Online compiled a list of “Household Dangers,” that inferred a class of chemicals, known as phthalates, could be linked to a variety of health effects and developmental problems in children.  While the article is correct in its description of phthalates as, “a class of chemicals used to soften polyvinyl chloride plastics, found in products ranging from shower curtains to cosmetics to intravenous-fluid bags,” that’s pretty much all Time was right about.

While the author was correct that phthalates is a class of chemicals he didn’t explain what this means. This class of chemicals covers a broad product range with different toxicology profiles. While some animal testing has shown that high levels of exposure to some phthalates may cause some concern in rodents, other common phthalates have received a clean bill of health by many top government agencies.  In fact, the phthalates used most widely in consumer products have undergone decades of review by independent scientists and numerous government agencies have proven over and over again that these phthalates pose no measurable risk to humans. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Toxicology Program, the Center for Disease Control, and a variety of other independent institutions around the world, have all extensively reviewed the phthalates used in toys for example, and determined them to be safe.  

The difference between these sound scientific studies and Time’s article is sensational packaging.  Time combines catchy phrases like “perilous plastics” with compelling graphics and the highly controversial work of Dr. Shanna Swan to paint everyday objects as dangerous poisons lurking all around your house.  The result is that individuals and our government panic – without stepping back to fully evaluate the validity of these claims, and the implications of a knee jerk overreaction.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), a law passed by Congress in 2008 to address the safety of consumer products as exhibit A.  This well intentioned legislation place a temporary “precautionary” ban on commonly used phthalates that had already been reviewed and approved by the government commission responsible for oversight of consumer products.  Rather than protect consumers, this ban wasted millions of dollars in inventory for businesses, and ultimately increased the risks consumer products posed to children by requiring the use of largely unstudied alternative chemicals, that lack the proven safety record of the phthalates most commonly used in toys.  In fact, none of the alternatives that have replaced the temporarily banned phthalates have been risk assessed by a U.S. government agency.

As I’ve said before, “in dealing with complicated scientific analyses, emotion and bias must be removed from the equation; science is, after all, about demonstrable facts.”  Time has done a serious disservice to its readers by carefully selecting the “facts” that produce the best headlines.  The reality is that the half truths, sensational theories, and fear-inducing headlines in that copy of Time on your table are the real peril lurking in your home.


Here is a link to the phthalates portion of the Time piece on chemicals:,28804,1976909_1976895_1976900,00.html



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