New studies of chemicals used in plastics reveal potential health problems, including miscarriages and abnormal fetus development.
But regulation remains a tricky prospect.
Legislators in California are developing bills targeting chemicals used in consumer products, including plastics, which may cause human health problems.
Cosmetics and chemical manufacturers say that such new legislation is unnecessary because a variety of state and federal laws already regulate the industry, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
One chemical of concern, bisphenol-A, or BPA, is used in baby bottles, teething rings, packaging materials and wall and floor coverings.
In a study published in the May 2005 edition of Endocrinology, mouse fetuses exposed to one percent of the amount of BPA deemed safe for humans developed significantly more tissue in their mammary glands.
This is important, the authors say, because high tissue density is an established risk factor for breast cancer.
An article in the journal Nature also noted that BPA caused abnormal growth in mouse prostate glands.
The Guardian reported that BPA has also been linked in a small study to repeated miscarriages in Japanese women.
Women who suffered miscarriages had three times the levels of BPA in their systems as women who had successful pregnancies.
The Guardian quoted Alan Boobis, a toxicologist on the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency, as calling for larger studies before a more concrete link can be established.
Phthalates, a class of chemical used in soaps, shampoes and plastics, has also been at the center of the safety debate.
This month’s Environmental Health Perspectives published research demonstrating that phthalates caused problems with the sexual development of male fetuses, including smaller penises, lower sperm count and incomplete testicular descent.
DEHP, a phthalate plastic softener used in consumer and medical products — including IV bags and tubes, blood bags and catheters — has been shown to cause a wide range of negative effects in animals.
In July, 2002 the FDA issued a public health notice warning that medical procedures using soft plastics could be harmful to infants — especially to reproductive development in males.
More recently, a Harvard study found that a DEHP by-product was absorbed into the bodies of infants in neonatal intensive care units in Boston.
Scientists said more research is needed to determine whether this is harmful.
The relative lack of large-scale, conclusive health research on these plastics has created friction between public health advocates, who call for increased regulation, and the industries that would be affected by that regulation.
The American Council on Science and Health, an nonprofit advocacy group funded by corporations such as Dow Chemical, Exxon and General Electric, complains that potential dangers of plastics are inflated by alarmist media.
In response to public fears about plastic packaging used for microwaveable foods, the Food & Drug Administration prescribed moderate precautions.
In a 2002 press release, FDA scientist Edward Machuga of the Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition said that “[i]t’s true that substances used to make plastics can leach into food,” but that the amount is very low.
In the same release the agency encouraged people to make sure that the plastic wrapping in some microwave products doesn’t touch the food.
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California Senate Bill 484
Updated May 26, 2005
“California takes aim at plastics”
Christian Science Monitor, June 2 2005
“Prenatal exposure to bisphenol A alters peripubertal mammary gland development in mice”
May, 26 2005 Endocrinology
“Mouse study claims plastics pose cancer risk”
Nature.com, May, 27 2005
“Link found between food packaging and miscarriages”
The Guardian, June 11, 2005
“PVC devices containing the plasticizer DEHP”
FDA Public Health Notice, July 12, 2002
Infant exposure to controversial chemicals continues in hospitals
HealthDay News, June 9 2005
“Decrease in anogenital distance among male infants with prenatal phthalate exposure”
Environmental Health Perspectives, June 2005
“Estrogens in unexpected places: Possible implications for researchers and consumers”
Environmental Health Perspectives, October 1995
“Plastics linked to cancer and genital abnormalities”
Environmental Data Interactive (U.K.), June 3, 2005
“Plastics and the microwave”
FDA Food Safety Press Release, November-December 2002