Brussels, 14 Oct 2004
Concerns about the health impacts of phthalates mean that some researchers were able to react quickly to the decision by the EU Competitiveness Council on 24 September to ban the use of six phthalates in children's toys.
Although scientific opinion is still divided, there have been fears going back for more than 20 years that phthalates, used to make plastic products soft rather than brittle, can cause cancer, kidney damage and disruption to the body's hormone system. With this in mind, ministers attending the Competitiveness Council agreed to an outright ban on three phthalates in toys and childcare articles, and to a further ban on an additional three phthalates in toys and childcare articles intended for children under three years that could be placed in the mouth. The decision will be reviewed within four years.
Researchers at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, in close collaboration with the PVC industry, have successfully developed an alternative group of softeners based on sugar alcohol. Tests have shown that these new materials are not toxic, and therefore have no effect on hormones.
As these alternative softeners are made entirely from renewable raw materials, they are also highly suited to sustainable mass production. Lead researchers Daan van Es and Kees de Gooijer believe that the softeners could be introduced into the market within two or three years. They add, however, that government intervention may be necessary in order for this to happen as industry is currently reluctant to invest in alternative products with uncertain profit margins.
Not a lot of attention has been devoted thus far to alternatives for phthalates, and alternatives currently present only ten per cent of the market. The main deterrents to further development have been cost and technical limitations on large scale adoption.
The EU decision will have no immediate effect on toy makers as the use of phthalates in children's toys has been covered by a temporary ban since 1999. It will however provide certainty about the use of the chemicals. The proposal to make the prohibition permanent had been rejected by some national governments until now.
Dutch research on non-toxic bio-based `softeners' for toys and other plastics (DG Research write-up on the Dutch undertaking mentioned above)