InterviewPhthalate industry struggles to fight misconceptions

21 October 2010 14:35  [Source: ICIS news]

(Recasts to clarify Nigel Sarginson's job title and to add details of phthalates substitutions in the last paragraph)

LONDON (ICIS)--The plasticisers industry is struggling to fight misconceptions in the media and among lawmakers related to phthalates and the risk they pose to public health, two industry officials said on Thursday.

Phthalates, the most common type of general plasticisers, are divided into two distinct groups – high and low molecular weight phthalates - with very different toxicological properties and classification, said Maggie Saykali, sector group manager at the European Council for Plasticisers and Intermediates (ECPI).

“The difference between the low and the high phthalates are not known at all in the public. The health aspect of them is completely different,” Saykali said.

She said that when people talk about phthalates in general in the media, the word phthalates is used when people in fact mean low phthalates.

Articles published in the US over concerns about the health effects of low phthalates in cosmetics find their way into media in Europe, where the use of these substances has been restricted for a number of years.

Saykali also said phthalates have become a very popular subject for research purposes, as these substances have been on the market for 40 years and there is a large amount of data on the subject.

“So, people say we’ve discovered alarming levels of phthalates in toys… you have to know that high molecular phthalates are not restricted in all toys, they are restricted in toys that can be put in the mouth, and that’s a very specific category,” she said.

“Again that’s happened because people couldn’t tell the difference between high and low phthalates,” added Nigel Sarginson, chairman of ECPI's HMW communication group.

He said that the low phthalates have been shown to cause reproductive effects in animals, and that this had led to the classification of reprotoxic, which causes them to be listed on the Reach Candidates List for Authorisation. Reach is the EU's registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals scheme. 

What this means is that manufacturers can submit a dossier 18 months before the date of a product phase-out – which for bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP), bis(n-butyl)phthalate (DBP) and diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP) is likely to be in 2015 - saying that they would want to go on using this in certain applications.

However, according to Saykali and Sarginson, this is limited to just a small number of applications, such as in the medical sector, and the gradual phase-out of low phthalates in Europe is a process which has been ongoing for a number of years.

The registration authorisation process has built in it the need for substitution, said Saykali, adding that in the case of DEHP, the substitution had been rather easy as it was natural that most of the applications shift to using high phthalates, which not only perform in the same way from a technical point of view, but have the added advantage of being more compatible with the plastic and less likely to get out of it.

Sarginson said that in the past the industry had gone through the risk assessment registration and met the requirements. Now, it was going through the very stringent exercise of the Reach registration process.

“We keep meeting the requirements as an industry, but yet still we feel for example that we are still on trial by media and very often by NGOs [non-governmental organisations],” said Sarginson.

“We’ve tested these products, we have actually replaced the classified phthalates to a significant degree with the safe high phthalates, but whatever we do it’s not enough.”

Saykali added that very often politics and perceptions were the industry’s challenge.

“It’s an uphill struggle to get accepted for the science,” she said.

“Our aim is to simplify the story and try to get as much information as possible to reassure the public that they can continue using safe products in a safe way.”

Sarginson said the Reach registration had been a rather challenging exercise, but that the members of ECPI which produce high phthalates had all registered and that in the low phthalates market the lead registrant, Arkema, had completed its registration and others were following.  

He said articles could still be imported containing plasticisers without registration with Reach, but the agency would have to be notified if it contained high levels of candidate list phthalates.

“The danger is that Reach can drive manufacturers of articles outside of Europe. And outside Europe, there are a lot of producers of DEHP,” said Sarginson.

However, he added that the member states were aware of this and that there are proposals to restrict low phthalates in articles to prevent this import.

Both Saykali and Sarginson were upbeat about the future of the plasticisers industry in Europe.

“We are starting to get users, converters and member state authorities recognising the difference,” said Saykali.

Sarginson said: “When we talk about substitutes there is a danger that people will say 'Use something different, but not phthalates'.

“The important thing is that the alternative is properly tested, it’s not just that it’s different, it has to be tested and evaluated. That’s what we have for the high phthalates, which is why we believe they are the best replacements from a health and safety viewpoint for DEHP. Other plasticisers are also being used to replace LMW phthalates particularly in applications such as medical, toys and food contact,“ he added.

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By: Hilde Ovrebekk
+44 20 8652 3214

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