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A Cosmetic Victory for Public Health

September 8, 2006
Trevor Butterworth
Fears over phthalates force manufacturers to change formulas for nail polish: we are saved from an illusory risk.

The New York Times Thursday Styles section may seem an unlikely venue for science reporting, but it has been one of the few venues for balanced coverage of the furor over phthalates, a family of colorless, oil-like chemicals that make everything from nail polish to children’s toys flexible. This week, the Times reported that:

“Bowing to pressure from environmental groups and European lawmakers, several cosmetics makers are removing a chemical from nail polish that is suspected of interfering with the endocrine system

Orly International and OPI Products have already started selling reformulated nail polishes without the chemical, dibutyl phthalate. Sally Hansen plans to start selling similarly reformulated products in 2007.”

The manufacturers had little choice: the European Union has adopted the precautionary principle in evaluating chemical safety, which means if you can’t prove a chemical is safe, out it goes.

As far as dibutyl phthalate (DBP) goes, a few whiffs of laboratory smoke have not shown the presence of any fire hazard to humans even though rats exposed to high levels of DPB are definitely burned.

According to research by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, an independent, non-profit organization charged with monitoring the safety of cosmetics, the highest concentration of DBP found in a bottle of nail polish was 15 percent, which amounts to approximately1950 milligrams of DBP per bottle.

The most conservative No Observable Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) for DBP (arrived at by implanting chemicals directly into the stomachs of rats) is 30 milligrams per kilo of bodyweight. Thus, a 154-pound person could consume 2,100 mg of DBP, or every phthalate molecule from one bottle of nail polish without ill effect.

Even daily exposure to DBP over a lifetime has no observable effects at fairly high levels; the maximum level set by the EPA is approximately 50-100 times higher than the levels determined by the NIH to be what average people are exposed to.

As the Times reported, this is just too much of risk for health activists concerned about everything from endocrine disruption to birth defects.

“But health groups like the Breast Cancer Fund, an advocacy group in San Francisco that focuses on the environment, said that phthalates are too risky to use in consumer products.

‘If there is evidence that an ingredient causes or is suspected of causing cancer or birth defects, cosmetics companies should not be using it in their products,’ said Kevin Donegan, the group’s director of communications. ‘Phthalates have clearly been demonstrated to cause harm.’”

And the group claims on its website that “Studies have linked DBP to underdeveloped genitals and other reproductive system problems in newborn boys.”

As STATS pointed out, in an analysis of the health risks to children from phthalates (which was based on extensive review of the scientific literature and discussion with health experts), not one baby in the study that the Breast Cancer Fund is referring to had any abnormal genital development or reproductive system problems. To claim this is what the research says is pure sophistry.

There is also the not entirely inconsequential matter – missed by the Times and every other news organization that has covered this issue – that the largest source of human exposure to DBP is through food, according to the National Toxicology Program Expert Panel Report on DBP, and specifically in the case of children, through infant formula (exposure levels from formula are falling though).

In other words, eliminating DBP from cosmetics will have virtually no discernable effect on our exposure to the chemical.

It’s also worth noting that the Expert Panel ends its report by stating that it “has minimal concern about effects to human development and development of the reproductive system from current estimated exposure to DBP.