By Will Dunham
A panel of the independent National Research Council said the scientific evidence justifies an Environmental Protection Agency assessment of the health effects from cumulative exposure to chemicals known as phthalates.
Phthalates, which make plastic products soft and flexible, have been used commercially for decades. They are different from another chemical, bisphenol A, or BPA, found in plastic products including baby bottles that has also come under health scrutiny. The Food and Drug Administration says BPA is safe at current levels of exposure but plans more research.
Animal studies cited by the panel indicated that exposure to phthalates affected male reproductive system development. Some phthalates reduce levels of the male hormone testosterone. Studies also link phthalates to liver cancer, the panel said.
If the EPA does an assessment, it could lead to new regulations on products with phthalates, the panel said.
"If we don't do this as a cumulative risk assessment focused on these adverse effects, we're going to be underestimating risks," said panel chairwoman, Deborah Cory-Slechta of the University of Rochester.
Phthalates have been used in toys, cosmetics, personal-care products, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and cleaning and building materials. They have been found in products such as teethers and pacifiers that babies put in their mouths.
President George W. Bush signed a law this year banning three types of phthalates in children's toys and child care items, except for minute amounts, while temporarily banning three others pending further study. The same six phthalates have been banned in European toys for nearly a decade.
Chris Bryant of the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, expressed concern about the panel's recommendations, saying Congress had already asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to conduct a risk assessment on phthalates.
Bryant said the panel's proposal for such a broad EPA risk assessment "essentially could result in a study without limits, financially or otherwise."
Some retailers including Wal-Mart and Toys R Us have announced plans to phase out phthalates in toys.
(Editing by Maggie Fox and Alan Elsner)