Did Politics Override Science on Phthalates?

This morning NPR ran an interesting story suggesting Congress disregarded the relevant science when it passed a ban on certain phthalates in children's toys. The measure may have been backed by Democrats, such as Senators Feinstein and Boxer, but it was signed by President Bush. More evidence of a Republican "War on Science."

Oh I think we just need to ban all chemical from anywhere near children.

My God, what if they start eating chemicals? Or drinking them?
4.1.2009 9:30pm
Roger Schlafly (www):
It is now the Democrat War on Science.
4.1.2009 10:36pm
That DHMO will get you every time.
4.1.2009 11:26pm
John Moore (www):
It wasn't my fault. The pthalates made me do it!
4.2.2009 12:13am
Cornellian (mail):
There is clearly a hidden agenda here - they're trying to ban pthalates so they'll never have to get up at a press conference and look like idiots trying to pronounce it.
4.2.2009 12:19am
The phtlalate ban hardly the worst of this.

Go ye forth and read the CPSIA stuff on Walter Olsen's Overlawyered
4.2.2009 12:22am
cboldt (mail):
-- an interesting story suggesting Congress disregarded the relevant science --
Child's play. Cap'n Trade coming soon. Media will be slow to notice the unintended consequences.
4.2.2009 1:04am
Cornellian - you can't seriously think the teleprompter lacks a phonetic setting after that "Orion" screwup.
4.2.2009 1:05am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
Orion is a word my TTS software messes up. :/ Comes out as OR eeon, the second 'o' all but disappears
4.2.2009 1:10am
subpatre (mail):
The pthalates part was only the tiniest tip of the iceberg. Yes, there was Democrat scaremongering ('your babies testicles won't grow' etcetera) In the prrocess, the bill gutted small businesses producing childrens' products.
The agency is being forced by this law to shift valuable safety resources away from hazards of concern and onto the regulation of products - such as books, bike tire valves and ball point pen tips - that no one has ever suggested pose real risks for children. ...

Small businesses, small retailers, crafters, and those whose sell used products are being particularly hard hit by this law but Congress and the courts have made it quite clear that the agency has no authority to change the reach of the law.
Acting Chairman, US Consumer Product Safety Commission, letter to President Obama

Maybe it's not all Democrats, but Feinstein (D), Boxer (D), and Waxman (D) are spearheading this, and adamant that it be enforced as written. To date the Dems have short-circuited every attempt to modify or amend the law, so the majority leaders are onboard too.
4.2.2009 1:33am
Cornellian (mail):
Cornellian - you can't seriously think the teleprompter lacks a phonetic setting after that "Orion" screwup.

Apparently there's a well known TV news guy in Chicago named Orion and Obama pronounced it like that guy pronounces his name rather than like the constellation, presumably because he's heard that guy pronounce his name before, but never heard anyone refer to the constellation.

The beauty of that incident is that now I will have a ready answer whenever anyone asks me whether I really learned anything from all those hours I wasted playing Masters of Orion many years ago.
4.2.2009 3:14am
Joe T Guest:
C'mon, cut Congress a break here. Those Masters of Teh Scientiphik probably thought they were banning Pthisis instead - a laudable (and formerly laudanum-able) cause.
4.2.2009 8:58am
presumably because he's heard that guy pronounce his name before, but never heard anyone refer to the constellation.

Finally we have a human being, with all the accompanying foibles, in the White House, with no more than a third-grade education!
4.2.2009 9:22am
glangston (mail):
This rush to protect has lead to possibly banning children's motorcycles.

Lead batteries are the main culprit. Manufacturers are seeking an exemption.
4.2.2009 9:24am
Sarah Natividad (mail) (www):
Breaking news: the exemption was denied. Why? Because the paperwork the motorcycle industry submitted showed that the potential lead absorption a child could get from normal use of the motorcycle was less than a glass of water. Because it resulted in any absorption at all, CPSC had to deny the exemption, because that's what CPSIA specifies: if it can result in ANY lead absorption, it has to be banned.

I really don't want to be partisan about this, because the people fighting CPSIA are of every political stripe. But CPSIA was authored by Democrats, sponsored by Democrats, and now Democrats are the ones refusing to do anything about it. But hey, it's a Republican war on science...
4.2.2009 9:35am
This particular front of the war on science has been going on for a long, long time and is bipartisan. Anyone remember Cyclamates? Whenever some self-appointed consumer protection group raises questions about anything, some Congresscritter will try to ban it, science be damned.

The CPSIA has had a ton of unintended (or maybe not?) side effects. Thrift stores are concerned about whether they can sell old children's clothes without testing. Same with old children's books, etc.

The real interesting question is why, in our system, when something like CPSIA ends up being so obviously dumb, that it isn't repealed?
4.2.2009 11:22am
DennisN (mail):
My grandchildren are in serious danger from licking their motorcycles. They'e in even more danger if they are doing so while driving them.
4.2.2009 11:23am
Dan Weber (www):
4.2.2009 11:29am
Joe Gator (mail):
In a related matter, check out George Will's latest

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is having its own problems with one "climate-friendly good" that might not be. Last week, the New York Times front page carried this headline: "The Bulb That Saved the Planet May Be a Little Less Than Billed."

The story recounted some Americans' misadventures with the new light bulbs that almost all Americans — all but those who are filling their closets with supplies of today's incandescent bulbs — will have to use after the phaseout of today's bulbs in 2014. (You missed that provision of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007?)

A San Francisco — naturally — couple emerged from Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" incandescent with desire to think globally and act locally, in their home. So they replaced their incandescent bulbs with the compact fluorescents that Congress says must soon be ubiquitous. "Instead of having a satisfying green moment, however," the Times reported, "they wound up coping with a mess."

Although supposed to last 10,000 hours and save, the Times says, "as much as" $5.40 a year in electricity costs, some bulbs died within a few hours. Some experts, reports the Times, "blame the government for the quality problems," saying its push to cut the bulbs' prices prompted manufacturers to use inferior components.

Furthermore, some experts have written a guide saying the new bulbs require "a little insight and planning." The Times says that "may be an understatement."

The bulbs, says the Times, "do not do well in hot places with little airflow, like recessed ceiling fixtures," and some do not work "with dimmers or three-way sockets." And: "Be aware that compact fluorescents can take one to three minutes to reach full brightness. This is not a defect." Well, if you say so. Because all fluorescents contain mercury, a toxic metal, they must never be put in the trash, so Home Depot and other chains offer bins for disposing of dangerous bulbs. Driving to one of these disposal points might not entirely nullify the bulbs' environmental benefits. Besides, the Times summarizes the Environmental Protection Agency's helpful suggestions for coping with the environmental dangers caused when one of these environment-saving bulbs breaks:

"Clear people and pets from the room and open a window for at least 15 minutes if possible. Avoid vacuuming. Scoop up larger pieces with stiff paper or cardboard, pick up smaller residue with sticky tape, and wipe the area with a damp cloth. Put everything into a sealed plastic bag or sealed glass jar. In most cases, this can be put in the trash, but the EPA recommends checking local rules."

Worrywarts wonder what will happen when a lazy or careless, say, 10 percent of 300 million Americans put their worn-out bulbs in the trash. Stop worrying. What do you think? That Congress, architect of the ethanol industry and designer of automobiles, does not think things through?

Congress is so wise...
4.2.2009 11:49am

A great example of both sides ignoring good science and good sense. While it is silly to force us to use compact fluorescent bulbs instead of incandescent, it is equally silly to criticize fluorescents because of supposed environmental hazard. Other than cutting yourself on broken glass, the risk of anything bad happening if you break one in your home is miniscule.
4.2.2009 12:09pm
Daniel M. Roche (mail):

Worrywarts wonder what will happen when a lazy or careless, say, 10 percent of 300 million Americans put their worn-out bulbs in the trash. Stop worrying.

My wife and I gave up on the suggested disposal methods after a month or two. You can't possibly expect us to drive to Lowes everytime a lightbulb burns out. I would bet that far more than 10% of us are throwing them in the trash.
4.2.2009 12:20pm
Grover Gardner (mail):
"You can't possibly expect us to drive to Lowes everytime a lightbulb burns out."

I doubt anyone would. If you can save up your dead rechargeable batteries, paint cans and other hazardous waste for an occasional trip to a disposal facility, surely you can hang on to a few light bulbs for your next trip to Lowe's. I save up my empty printer carts for credits when I return them to Staples. Doesn't create too much of a space issue for me.

But more to the point, this plastic additive was judged to be hazardous to children. Because one study showed that a handful of children didn't suck on plastic toys for a little over an hour, we're supposed to be outraged that it's been banned? Tell it to my two-year-old niece, who probably isn't five minutes a day without one toy or another in her mouth.
4.2.2009 12:32pm
Dan Weber (www):
You can't possibly expect us to drive to Lowes everytime a lightbulb burns out.

Yes, because immediately driving to Lowes is the only option.

CFLs are still a net benefit to total environmental mercury even if a large portion of people toss them in the trash, since their reduced energy consumption means that less mercury was released at the power plant.

You can make different assumptions about how people dispose of them and how clean the energy sources are.
4.2.2009 12:34pm
Daniel M. Roche (mail):

If you can save up your dead rechargeable batteries . . . for an occasional trip to a disposal facility, surely you can hang on to a few light bulbs for your next trip to Lowe's.

I'd love to see poll data on how many Americans do that.
4.2.2009 1:00pm

subpatre wrote:
The pthalates part was only the tiniest tip of the iceberg. Yes, there was Democrat scaremongering ('your babies testicles won't grow' etcetera)

I don't understand. Why would Democrats want to ban something that will produce future Democrats?
4.2.2009 1:10pm
Mars Feeney (mail):
Dan Weber - the people who are against the CPSIA ARE thinking about the children. I have a 5 year old daughter and the #1 reason I am against this law is that I believe it is bad for her and all other children.

The vast majority of the money spent complying with this law will be spent certifying products that are already proven safe or known to be safe beyond any reasonable doubt. This money is money out of the pockets of parents who would be using it to provide for their children.

The CPSIA, as it stands, will devastate small manufacturers, artists, and craftsmen who produce the best, most creative, most educational, and safest products for children.

The CPSIA is wiping out the used children's products market - an extremely important resource for low income families. Used resellers can't afford to test and they can't risk the immense penalties. Even if they are 99.9 percent sure a product is safe they cannot risk it.

This law is threatening to take away all children's books published before 1985 even though the evidence is overwhelming that they are safe.

The list of products made illegal by this law is ridiculous: bicycles, tricycles, books, atv's, microscopes, telescopes, pens, and the list goes on. Products that while they do have a little lead in them it would never, under any reasonable scenario, find its way into a child.

Then there is the unit testing requirement of the CPSIA. Of all the different systems that one could come up with to certify product safety the only distinction that unit testing has is that it is the most monumentally inefficient method one could imagine. To be honest there are probably a small number of cases where unit testing might be the right way to go. But across the board unit testing is simply insane.

The CPSIA was well intended I have no doubt. But good intentions alone are not enough. The unfortunate reality is that this law is backfiring - it is hurting children. I don't think I can say that loud enough: THIS LAW IS HURTING CHILDREN!

We must continue to work to protect our children from toxic substances but this law is NOT THE WAY TO DO IT!
4.2.2009 1:13pm
Laura(southernxyl) (mail) (www):
Could somebody explain how a few atoms of lead on a kid's dirt bike is a big deal, but a few atoms of mercury in a thin glass (i.e. fragile, breakable) tube in a child's bedroom is not a big deal?
4.2.2009 1:38pm
FWB (mail):
phthalates, oxybenzone, and dozens of chemicals in use daily can have serious side effects on living organisms. Most of these compounds mimic estrogen. Oxybenzone has been linked to male turbot (fish) growing ovarian tissues in their testes. phthalates are ubiquitous, occurring in the plastics of new cars (note that fresh new car odor), makeup, etc. But in drinking water phthlates have one of the lowest MCLs (EPA) of all contaminants. Could there be a problem? Yes. Is it up to the government or the parents to manage things? Only you can answer this one.

Be careful what one wasks for, one may just get it. When one wishes for regulation in one area, realize there are others who want regulations in different areas. Chemical regulations occur because of the ignorance of the general public about chemicals.

Check out DHMO.ORG

True stories. Real results.

Question: How many on here are chemically smart?

Oh yes, oxybenzone that causes ovarian tissue to grow in fish testes is a primary ingredient of most sunscreens.

Tiochfaidh ar la!
4.2.2009 2:11pm
bellisaurius (mail):
I kinda wished we went with a national standard of concern. An item I could feel I have control over (like driving, or eating fish) <i>could</i> be controlled to a 1 in 1000 chance of dying level, and one I don't to a 1 in 10,000 level.

It's more about the congresscritters picking and choosing their ills that bug me than anything else.

I guess that's the just the way it works with eveything. If I can get someone famous to talk about an issue, I get lot's of attention, if not, I don't. Hence why AIDs gets more attention than drinking water and sanitation. Oh wel.
4.2.2009 2:46pm
theobromophile (www):
The "war on science" that both sides engage in has happened, in part, because the government is sticking its nose into areas where it just doesn't belong. If the government only had the most baseline of certifications for toys, and allowed private groups to put a seal of approval on them (akin to Good Housekeeping or AAA), then this wouldn't be a political issue.

As Prof. Adler's previous article points out, the Left has its own "war on science." Certainly, neither side is a bastion of unbiased scientific analysis; both have a tremendous incentive to distort the results as much as possible to achieve their own political ends. We can hope that both sides will come to their senses, or we can remove the incentive to play politics with science.
4.2.2009 3:35pm
wfjag: had a good explanation a few months back:

San Francisco Chronicle "toying" with parents' fears
Trevor Butterworth, Nov 26, 2008
Media scaremongering over vinyl toys shows how little journalists know about science

The louder the media shouts about the perfidy of phthalates, the greater the probability that the journalist doing the shouting doesn't know much about science or care. Phthalates have become something more than a chemical that has many, and hitherto safe, uses in everything from medical equipment to children's toys; they are now symbols of industrial perfidy, a repository of disgust with the Bush administration's perversion of science, and a scandal to redeem journalists from an increasing lack of social utility. Hence, the following hyperbolic editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"Merry Christmas, American children! The Bush administration has a special Christmas present for you: phthalates in your toys now, and phthalates in your toys for as long as companies have them.

Sound merry? Well, no, considering that exposure to phthalates can harm the development of reproductive organs and have been linked to cancer. The chemical is used to soften plastic - making it popular for rubber ducks, teething toys, and anything else that young children love to chew on - but it's banned in much of the industrialized world and, starting in January, the state of California."

Let's assume for a moment that scientists such as William S. Knowles, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, are wrong when they say phthalates are safe, and let's assume that the European politicians who enacted a ban on phthalates in children's toys against the advice of their own scientists, are right; let's grant the editorial writers at the San Francisco the illusion of expertise, and declare that phthalates pose some kind of health risk: the question is do vinyl toys make that risk a manifest threat?

If a parent, in other words, fails to check to see whether the specific phthalate in vinyl toys -- DINP -- is present in the toy they buy for their child, will something bad happen to the child, like getting cancer, as the Chronicle suggests?

Here's what the European Union says about DINP and cancer: "There is no concern for a potential carcinogenic effect in humans." (Summary, p22) Why? The modes of action that caused cancer in lab rats are not applicable to humans.

What about development of reproductive organs? The European Union calculated that for children up to three years of age, the maximum total daily intake of DINP from all sources was 0.156mg/kg bw/d. Though it didn't draw a formal conclusion about reproductive risk, it did note that there was a NOAEL (No Observed Adverse Effect Level) for DINP of 311 mg/kg bw/d, and that the gap between actual daily exposure and the scale of exposure one would need to reach the safety threshold was so great there was no cause for concern:

"The end products containing DINP (clothes, building materials, toys and baby equipment) and the sources of exposure (car and public transport interiors, food and food packaging) are unlikely to pose a risk for consumers (adults, infants and newborns) following inhalation, skin contact and ingestion."

What the San Francisco Chronicle has done is conflate the risk of one phthalate in toys with the potential risks of all phthalates from all sources. And that just isn't playing fair. (the evidence that even the combined exposure poses a significant threat to health is also limited).

So, as a consumer, you can believe the San Francisco Chronicle, or you can read the E.U. risk assessment for yourself and decide whether this is something worth worrying about. Either way, make sure that you dispose of the plastic wrapping from any toys you do buy, as each year, children demonstrate the actual risks from plastic by dying from suffocation. That, perhaps, is the kind of measurable risk worth remembering during the holiday season.

So, Prof. Adler, if you believe the S.F. Carbunkle, it really is another example of "Bush's War on Science" -- and obviously his signing the Bill was just a Rovian plot. However, if you believe, "science reporter" is a figment of the imagination, and the wisdom of politicians exists only in an alternate universe where the unicorns are.
4.2.2009 4:29pm
Some Other Guy (mail):
There is, and always has been a political opposition to science, but to paint it as a Republican habit is to miss half of the problem. Yes, the Republicans have sought support by pandering to the superstitious idiots who ignore the fact of evolution, but the Democrats are doing the same thing with the "global warming" crowd.

It's obvious that the bigshots in the Democratic party don't buy into the global warming religion; just look at what kinds of cars they use for their motorcades, or Nancy Pelosi's penchant for demanding jet transportation from the military instead of flying commercially.
4.3.2009 12:06am
Could somebody explain how a few atoms of lead on a kid's dirt bike is a big deal, but a few atoms of mercury in a thin glass (i.e. fragile, breakable) tube in a child's bedroom is not a big deal?

Because the lead was put there by an immoral wasteful greedy selfish arrogant Mr. Monopoly Man rich scum businesman for the sole purpose of money money money, while the mercury comes from a noble selfless other-serving consensus-building mother for the purpose of healing Mother Earth.

Sheesh. Didn't you get the memo? Obama is President! Good intentions are what matters now. This fussing about actual results and tying yourself down to objective reality is one of those Failed Policies Of The Past we've thoroughly rejected.
4.3.2009 12:32am

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