EU Commission goes soft on phthalates

Commissioners reject ban proposal, agree recommendation allowing national actions

European commissioners meeting in Brussels today, formally rejected a push by consumer affairs commissioner Emma Bonino for an emergency ban on the PVC-softening chemicals phthalates, but agreed a recommendation allowing EU countries to take actions individually.

The decision, which came after weeks of wrangling within the Commission, follows requests from Denmark (ENDS Daily 12 June 1997) and Spain (ENDS Daily March 25) for EU action on phthalates following advice from an EU scientific committee that migration of phthalates into babies' saliva was a "cause for concern" (ENDS Daily 29 April).

Under the non-binding recommendation agreed by commissioners, EU countries are encouraged to check migration levels of phthalates, particularly DINP and DEHP, from PVC items intended to be sucked or chewed by children under three years of age. Any member state deciding to take restrictive action on toys containing phthalates is required to inform the Commission of the action, including information on testing methods and levels of migration found.

The move effectively leaves Denmark, Spain, Sweden and Austria - which have already informed the Commission of their intentions - free to go ahead with plans to ban certain toys without the risk of breaking single market rules.

The Commission confirmed that it would draft a directive harmonising EU rules on phthalates in this type of toy as soon as possible. That will not be done, however, until the EU can find an acceptable scientific method for testing the migration of phthalates from toys to the mouth. The Commission hopes that work currently being coordinated by the Dutch health ministry will provide that test method by September, and if this proves acceptable to all member states will then propose EU legislation.

Despite the risk of individual country action on this type of toy, industry groups have welcomed the fact that an EU-wide emergency ban has been rejected by the Commission. Paul Jackson of the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers said the coming directive would allow individual toys to be tested for phthalate migration meaning that product lines could be withdrawn if found to be potentially harmful, while most phthalate-containing toys would be allowed to stay. He said that most countries would be likely to wait for the imminent EU-wide legislation rather than impose their own bans.

But Greenpeace accused the Commission of ducking its responsibility to protect consumer safety. A spokesman said: "The only hope is that the member states take appropriate action."

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111. European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers, tel: +32 2 676 7443; Dutch health ministry.

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