SATURDAY, Sept. 5, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Chemicals with the tongue-twisting name of phthalates (pronounced THAL ates) are nearly ubiquitous in consumer products, found in items from soaps, lotion and cosmetics to plastics and toys.
A little over a decade ago, environmental organizations such as the Environmental Working Group began to focus on phthalates and have been working ever since for tighter regulation or, in some cases, bans.
On the other side are groups such as the American Chemistry Council, representing the industries that produce phthalate-containing products. It says it supports "science-based product safety decisions."
If you're a consumer, chances are extremely high that you've been exposed to phthalates, said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group. "About 95 percent of people have measurable levels of these chemicals, the phthalates, in them," she said. Often younger women, partly because of cosmetic use, have higher levels, she said.
Over the past few years, researchers have uncovered multiple health hazards, either in animal or human studies, linked to phthalates. For instance, the chemicals have been found to lower sperm quality in men as well as testosterone levels, in turn perhaps setting them up for unhealthy abdominal obesity.
Pregnant women working in the beauty industry have been found at higher risk for giving birth to boys with birth defects.
Exposure to the chemicals also has been linked with early-onset puberty and with a higher risk of breast cancer later on in adulthood.
And a study released in late June suggested that low birth weight in babies was linked to their mothers' exposure to phthalates while pregnant.
To date, the strongest links between phthalates and health have focused on reproductive problems, said Shanna Swan, a professor and director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York.
"The next wave is asthma and allergy," predicted Swan, a veteran researcher in the field. That link, between the chemicals and the asthma and allergy problems, she said, is getting stronger.
As the findings of potential health hazards have unfolded, environmentalists have pushed for stronger regulation, and in some cases they've succeeded.
Under a recent law, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, children's toys and child-care articles cannot contain more than 0.1 percent of six different phthalates. The regulation took effect Feb. 10 of this year.
In addition, a report from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences issued in late 2008 concluded that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should examine whether combined exposure to phthalates can cause an adverse health effect. The council experts called for a cumulative risk assessment and suggested looking at other chemicals as well, not just chemicals within the phthalate family.
Lunder agreed with that recommendation. "We can't do this one chemical at a time," she said. What's crucial is to look at all chemicals in use, she said, adding that that's a task much easier said than done.
But looking at cumulative risk is important, Swan agreed. "We are getting multiple hits not only from phthalates [exposure] but other chemicals," she said.
On its Web site, the American Chemistry Council emphasizes the importance of first proving a hazard before removing chemicals from products.
For instance, in a statement issued April 2, Sharon Kneiss, a council vice president, protested decisions by some manufacturers to remove phthalates from some fragrance applications "without any scientific or regulatory basis." She contended that their use in fragrances does not present a hazard.
Chris Bryant, managing director of the council's chemical products and technology division, said that the organization welcomes reviews and more science on the effects of phthalates. And it supports the call for cumulative risk assessment and the study of the chemicals also underway by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, he said.
"These reviews will reaffirm the findings of scores of studies conducted by governmental agencies around the world that phthalates are safe for their intended uses," Bryant said.
The Environmental Working Group has more on phthalates.