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Concerns over chemicals in cosmetics: Are ‘plasticizing’ substances causing health woes?
By Francesca Lyman

Oct. 4, 2000— Beauty is only skin deep, but a new study suggests that some common cosmetic products leave traces of “plasticizing” chemicals in our bodies that could cause an array of health woes. Such research is adding momentum to a movement calling for better monitoring of environmental toxins and any harm they could be causing to our health.

WHEN CERTAIN chemicals in a class known as phthalates, used to soften
vinyl plastic, were found to leach out of baby rattles and teethers
several years ago, it touched off a controversy that led to bans and
voluntary recalls in the toy industry. Regulators started reassessing
the safety of these chemicals, which some investigators suspect of
causing cancer and birth defects.

Now, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
report in the October issue of the journal Environmental Health
Perspectives that the average American may be exposed to other chemicals
in the phthalate family — substances shown to cause cancer, birth
defects and adverse hormonal effects in lab animals.

The researchers detected surprisingly higher levels of these
plasticizers than of toxins often tested for, such as lead or
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — and much higher than the other
phthalates that had been most controversial — in random urine samples
taken of the American population. They concluded that it was “critically
important” to get further exposure data on these chemicals, used in
cosmetics, and a wide variety of other consumer products, in order to
assess health risks to people, especially “potentially susceptible

Phthalates, chemicals that off-gas from plastic (familiarly associated
with “new car smell”) are used in scores of consumer products —
everything from perfumes and hair sprays to artificial leather and
garden hoses, hair sprays and lotions to shower curtains and vinyl

With up to 4 million tons of phthalates produced and widely used
throughout the world each year, industry representatives downplay any
adverse effects to human health.

The new study, done by CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health,
represents the first time researchers have measured the presence of
phthalates in humans. “It’s an important study,” says Mike Shelby, chief
of the toxicology laboratory at the National Institute of Environmental
Health Sciences (NIEHS), “because it shows for the first time how much
of these compounds people are really being exposed to.”

The results, he says, show both that people are being exposed on a wide
scale and that “those with the highest levels are getting higher doses
than we thought.”

While the highest doses are at levels “much lower than where you’d see
toxic effects in rodents,” says Shelby, “it’s when those two start
approaching one another that you start to worry.”

More research is already underway on a bigger sampling of the
population, with more tests needed to better determine what health
effects phthalates might cause in people or developing fetuses.

Yet these preliminary findings add to concerns that “background” levels
of many chemicals in the environment — long thought to be in small
enough concentrations to have negligible effects on human health — could
play a crucial role in human development as well as in causing cancer,
neurological, immune system disorders and infertility, says Jim O’Hara,
director of Health Track, a new nonprofit group funded by the Pew
Charitable Trusts trying to build support for better “exposure”monitoring.
“What this study points to,” says O’Hara, “is that there’s a significant
gap in our knowledge of what levels people have of toxic substances.”

His views echo those of the Pew Environmental Health Commission, which
has charged that the nation faces an “environmental health gap.” In
September the commission called on Congress to mount a new program to
effectively track and monitor the chronic diseases that stem from
environmental pollution — everything from asthma and chronic respiratory
diseases to birth defects and developmental disorders to multiple
sclerosis and Parkinson’s. While “overt poisoning from environmental
toxins has long been recognized, the environmental links to a broad
array of chronic diseases of uncertain cause is unknown,” the Commission
CDC chemist John Brock, the lead researcher on the phthalate study, came
upon his discovery by accident. While he was looking for known
carcinogens such as PCBs in blood and urine, he discovered phthalates
present at levels 1,000 times higher than PCBs.

Metabolites of diethyl phthalate (DEP), used in volatile components of
cosmetics like perfumes, nail polishes and hairsprays, were found at
levels about 70 times higher than metabolites of di-(2-ethylhexyl)
phthalate (DEHP), one of the chemicals banned in soft plastic toys, for

"Phthalates are everywhere in the lab, in the vials, the tubing, and the
syringes,” says NIEHS’s Shelby. “So we routinely shrugged them off as
contaminants.” But Brock was compelled by the question: What if they
weren’t just contaminants, but rather residues of chemical exposures in
the environment from the widespread use of phthalates from a variety of
routes — through food and drink, skin absorption or inhalation, for

“Everyone was looking for the needle in the haystack, when what they
should have been looking at was the hay,” says Brock. He went on to
prove in ongoing studies over the past few years that the “troublingly”
high levels of phthalates he detected in humans weren’t coming from soft
plastic tubing but from chemicals used in a wide range of products,
ranging from nail polishes and perfumes, hand lotions and soaps, to wood

By tracing the human metabolites of these chemicals — the breakdown
products in the human body — “we’ve been able to get really accurate
numbers on how average Americans are being exposed,” Brock says.

In the study, researchers measured the levels of seven phthalate
metabolites in urine samples taken from 289 people. The researchers are
now following up on an additional 1,000 subjects to better ascertain the
sources of the phthalates.

At this point, says Brock, it’s certainly not clear what health effects
the phthalates may have on the subjects. However, his biggest concern
was that “the highest levels of exposure were in women of child-bearing

Reproductive biologist Earl Gray of the Environmental Protection Agency,
who studied the effects of phthalates on rodents, says that there’s
ample cause for concern as the chemicals are reproductive toxins, with
two, DBP and BzBP, particularly anti-androgenic, tending to block male
hormones. “The effects on rats were quite profound, creating malformed
genitalia, vaginal pouches, absent or undescended testes, and
infertility,” says Gray.

The industry-sponsored Phthalate Esters Panel, while praising the study
for its use of the latest diagnostic chemical techniques, said the
phthalate levels uncovered in the CDC study are of “negligible” concern.

In a letter to CDC, the Panel’s toxicologist Raymond M. David suggested
using a formula that could take the new urine data and extrapolate
“intake” levels of the phthalates based on data from human volunteers in

With this formula, he found the “intake” exposures to be “at or below
levels that the EPA has determined to be safe for daily exposures.”

Others, however, took the findings as a sign that the current regulatory
regime is not protecting public health. “This study reveals that
exposures are real, and that we’ve neglected the vital work of testing
our own bodies for pollutants in the environment,” says J. P. Myers, one
of the co-authors of the book “Our Stolen Future,” which proposed that
hormone-disrupting chemicals in the environment might be producing
cancers and other ill effects. “For a long time we’ve been depending on
safety limits developed by engineers and based on assumptions that are
probably wrong.”

The CDC will be releasing their new report card on public exposures to
25 selected toxins — heavy metals, phthalates, neurotoxins, pesticides,
and other substances — sometime before December 2000. “This will be the
first snapshot we’ll get of Americans’ real-world exposures — the kind
of information we’ve been sorely lacking,” says O’Hara, “but that we,
frankly, need much more of.”
[Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml ]


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