Danish EPA surveys phthalate substitutes

Broadest yet health, environment, assessment fails to clarify relative risks of phthalates versus alternatives

The Danish environmental protection agency (EPA) has issued the most extensive health and environmental assessment yet of alternatives to phthalate plasticisers. The study will help firms to choose potential substitutes, the agency says, enabling achievement of a national goal to halve phthalate use (ENDS Daily 18 June 1999). But European plasticiser makers claim it fails to show that the substitutes are, in fact, any safer than phthalates.

Denmark has played a leading role in the EU debate over phthalates in PVC baby toys since the EPA first reported "excessive" leaching into saliva (ENDS Daily 28 May 1997). This application of phthalates is now prohibited across the EU, but Denmark is targeting a more general reduction in use.

The EPA study pulls together published health and environmental data on 11 potential phthalate alternatives, including an adipate, a citrate, two phosphates, a trimellitate and soybean oil. Based on agreed EU risk assessment principles, it shows that in environmental and health terms there are a range of alternatives to phthalates for almost all current uses, says the agency's Lea Frimann Hansen.

Ms Frimann Hansen accepts, however, that technical performance issues are not addressed. In addition, she admits that the study indicates certain levels of toxicity or ecotoxicity for nearly all the substances, and that it also shows continuing large gaps in health or environmental data sets.

Focusing on these shortcomings, European plasticiser manufacturers suggest that the study comes out rather well for phthalates. The lack of data on alternatives makes it impossible to say with certainty that any are safer than phthalates, according to David Cadogan of trade body ECPI. And there are some indications of certain types of toxicity for some of the chemicals. Overall, he told ENDS Daily: "If you compared [the findings] with phthalates then I think you would choose a phthalate."

More surprising, Ms Frimann Hansen also accepted that the findings probably would not support use of any of the phthalate alternatives in the particular application of baby toys that has been at the centre of so much EU debate. It was for this reason, she told ENDS Daily, that a second element of the study looked at polyurethane and polyethylene alternatives to PVC, obviating the need for plasticising agents.

* In a related development, the EU's emergency ban on use of phthalates in baby toys was renewed for a further three months on Monday, according to the European Commission. It was last extended in early December (ENDS Daily 11 December 2000).

Follow Up:
Danish EPA, tel: +45 32 66 01 00, and the study; ECPI, tel: +32 2 676 7211.

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