BRUSSELS Imagine a child sitting in his classroom, gazing through the window at the rain. He picks up his pencil and chews distractedly on the eraser at its top. Chemicals, classed in Europe as "toxic to reproduction," dissolve in his saliva and enter his body.
It's a scenario that may not be unusual. A report published last week by a consortium of 140 environment groups shows that potentially risky chemicals are present in dozens of everyday plastic items for sale by European retailers -- from shoes to erasers, from pencil cases to sex toys.
The study focused on a group of chemicals known as phthalates, six of which have been virtually banned in toys in the European Union since 1999 over fears they can damage the sexual development of children. But as the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) found in its study, phthalates are present in items routinely used by children and on sale in big supermarkets such as Carrefour and Tesco.
The study, based on a chemical analysis by PiCA, an independent chemical laboratory in Berlin, found one pink pencil case with levels three times those which the EU says should be the maximum in toys and "childcare articles." A phthalate that scientists suspect may be particularly harmful to humans was found in an eraser at a level close to that which would be banned in a toy.
Concerns about phthalates are not new, and retailers selling products containing them are not breaking the law, because the regulations do not cover objects such as pencil cases and erasers.
But the EEB study also found that retailers appear to be ignoring a legal obligation to provide information about the presence of phthalates to shoppers. Less than a quarter of retailers in its survey provided satisfactory answers to requests for information about chemicals in their products.
"All citizens ought to be given full information about properties of chemicals in the products they buy," said Christian Schaible, EEB Chemicals Policy Officer. "A parent, for instance, should automatically be informed whether a pencil case for their child contains phthalates which can impair sexual development.
"Unfortunately suppliers are only obliged to give information under specific conditions. We have shown that not even this legal right is guaranteed in practice."
Carrefour told Reuters that it does adequately address requests for information on risky chemicals and said it deals with such requests within 45 days. Tesco said it was aware of its duties and has its own code of practice in place to keep worrying chemicals out of clothes and shoes. "We have worked closely with our suppliers to identify these substances and have replaced them with suitable alternatives," it said in a statement.
LINK TO SEXUAL DEVELOPMENT
Phthalates are a range of chemicals regularly used to make plastics more flexible. There are about 25 of them, and in recent decades they have permeated the very fabric of our society, right down to the shoes on our feet. They are in the air we breathe and the paint on our office walls, they soften the vinyl floors of kitchens and bathrooms, they put the flex in our shower curtains and electric cables.
In your car, phthalates coat the chassis against rust and soften the plastics of its doors, dashboard and the steering wheel in your hands.
They are in our food, some scientists think, after leaching out of the pipes and plastics used in food processing machinery. They are in our bodies.
The global chemicals industry produces nearly six million tonnes of phthalates every year. Some scientists, and an increasing number of governments, have begun to suspect that phthalates might be connected to a massive drop in male fertility globally over the past few decades -- in the developed world, repeated studies have shown sperm counts have decreased by about 50 percent in the past half century -- as well as to problems with the sexual development of boys in the womb.
The most volatile of the chemicals disperse easily from plastics and have been shown to interfere with the sexual development of fetal rats, by interrupting the production of testosterone. Some studies have suggested similar effects in humans.
As well as the toy ban, the EU controls or bans certain phthalates from things like cosmetics and paints. It has also begun to examine restricting the use of some phthalates in other products, a process that is likely to take years. The United States has limited the use of certain phthalates in toys since 2008, and says it is investigating the safety of others. Australia bans the sale of items containing more than one percent of a single phthalate.
NOT FULLY MASCULINISED
If there is a connection between phthalates and impaired fertility in people, they would not be the first chemicals to have had this impact. In July 10, 1976, an explosion tore through a pesticide factory in the small Italian town of Seveso, releasing a dense vapor cloud laced with the chemical dioxin.
Nobody died, and the accident went largely unnoticed, at least initially. But what followed gave scientists the first insight that tiny concentrations of chemicals could have a disproportionate effect on human fertility.
A few hours after the explosion, burn-like lesions began appearing on local children. In the weeks that followed many developed chloracne, a severe skin disorder typified by acne-like blackheads, cysts and pustules. In the years after the accident, an unusually high proportion of boys were born to parents exposed to the chemical cloud. Those same boys grew up to have abnormally low sperm counts, medical studies later showed.
Just as Seveso taught us a lot about dioxins, we're now learning more and more about phthalates -- not because of one single incident, but because scientists are putting them under increasing scrutiny in the quest to understand trends such as decreased male fertility.
In pregnant rats, numerous studies have proven that exposure to some phthalates reduces testosterone levels in the male fetus, interfering with normal development of the penis and descent of their testicles. But it was not until 2005 that scientists made a link between the chemicals and changes in humans.
A group of researchers at Rochester University, New York, studied the masculinity of newborn boys. As an indicator, they measured the distance between anus and the base of the penis -- the anogenital distance -- which is typically twice as long in males as in females, and is often used by scientists as a marker of masculinity. Low anogenital distances are associated with problems of reproductive health, such as undescended testes or deformed penises.
The researchers then compared that measurement with the phthalate levels in the urine of the infants' mothers.
"We found that in human male infants, as predicted by animal studies, when the mother was exposed to some phthalates, the boys had changes in their reproductive development, which was not fully masculinised," says Shanna Swan, who led the study.
Respected journal Environmental Health Perspectives named Swan's team's study "paper of the year" in 2009 for its massive impact on current thinking about phthalates. The study was not perfect -- at just 134 infants, the sample size was very small -- but Swan is working on a new, bigger and more rigorous study that could help settle the science.
Other scientists are also trying to pin down the link between phthalates and changes in humans. In an Edinburgh laboratory, a mouse wanders through its cage to sip at some water tainted with plastic softeners. Under the skin on its back are grafted tiny pieces of tissue from the testicles of a human fetus. The objective is to directly ascertain if those softeners could be confusing our hormones and mutating the genitalia of unborn infants. Professor Richard Sharpe, an expert in male reproductive health at Edinburgh University and the leader of the study, believes people will find a link between our environment and lifestyles and male reproductive health. "We have solid evidence testicular cancer has increased progressively across Europe in the past 50 to 70 years," he says, "and it has happened in a space of time that coincides with lifestyle and environmental changes."
Sharpe believes that "understanding whether or not phthalates play any role in human male reproductive disorders is pivotal." Animal studies, he says "point clearly toward effects, but human studies are very mixed. We'll have a much clearer idea in the next 12 months. If we don't find any effects of phthalates on the fetal human testis, they really drop down the list of suspects. If we find a positive effect, I think it could be the end of phthalates."
THE SLOW WHEELS OF REGULATION
In Europe, the group tasked with evaluating and restricting potentially risky chemicals such as phthalates is the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), based in Helsinki. Its main role is to implement a 2007 law aimed at improving understanding of and control over 30,000 chemicals regularly used around Europe that currently face few regulations.
Known as REACH -- Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals -- the law was one of the most intensively lobbied in European history. European chemical firms opposed it, as did the administration of George W. Bush, which argued it would choke off transatlantic trade.
The law now forces companies to register the chemicals they want to sell; the Agency is combing through data given to it by the industry to decide which should be phased out fastest. From an original broad list of around 1,500 chemicals of concern, 38 have so far been classified as "substances of very high concern" including four phthalates -- DEHP, BBP, DBP and DIBP.
Many activists are unhappy with the pace of progress and feel the Agency should look beyond the 38 substances it is tackling. Environmentalists and health campaigners, including Greenpeace and the Health and Environment Alliance, have compiled a list of 356 chemicals they want curbed immediately. The European Trade Union Confederation has a list of 334 it wants banned from the workplace.
But the task of evaluating the evidence is so huge, and the resources of the agency so limited, that even the initial 38 chemicals will take years to phase out or approve. Geert Dancet, ECHA's executive director, says it may take until 2014 to decide how these first few chemicals should be dealt with. "Then there are those chemicals we don't even know about yet, and in that case 2020 is the target date."
FROM SEX TO FOOD
It's not just children who are at risk.
As well as testing children's shoes, make up bags and pencil cases, the Berlin laboratory tested samples from the shaft of E09-039/10, a smooth blue vibrator. It was one of five sex toys tested, four of which showed high concentrations of DEHP. The blue vibrator had 55 percent DEHP by weight, while another sold as "Prince Charming" had 63 percent. Many experts feel uncomfortable discussing the issue in public, but all agree sex toys are likely to add to the overall phthalate level present in adults, and in the case of pregnant women, might affect an unborn child.
Scientists are beginning to better understand how phthalates enter our bodies. One of the main channels may be the food we eat. In one 2006 German study, three volunteers abstained from eating for 48 hours, drinking only mineral water, while the levels of phthalates were measured in their urine.
Within the first 18 hours, levels of DEHP plummeted and remained low for the remaining 30 hours, suggesting that food was the main source.
"I am certain that food is the main exposure route for DEHP, but spikes in phthalate levels seen in the study show there are other exposure routes too," said Dr Holger Koch, who led the study. "We suspect phthalates are getting into food via the plastics used in the various steps of food processing."
TARRED WITH THE SAME BRUSH
Despite the emerging evidence, some in the chemicals industry deny there is a problem. "The European Union has confirmed that DEHP poses no general risk to human health," says industry website DEHP Information Center, which is managed by the European Council for Plasticizers and Intermediates (ECPI), and represents the interests of producers including Germany's Oxea and Arkema of France.
But ECPI manager Maggie Saykali takes a more nuanced approach, stressing a shift in Europe toward the safer phthalates, such as DINP. "Scientific evidence repeatedly shows that they are safe to use," says Saykali. "The danger is that all phthalates are being tarred with the same brush."
Some producers have begun substituting higher-risk phthalates with those scientists think may pose less of a risk. According to the Helsinki-based registration agency, DEHP today makes up around 18 percent of phthalates in western Europe, down from 42 percent in 1999. The use of DINP, which has a longer chemical chain, is growing.
But even DINP -- manufactured by companies such as Germany's BASF and U.S.-based ExxonMobil Chemical -- is not beyond suspicion. "Scientific information regarding DINP ... is either lacking or conflictual, but it cannot be excluded that they pose a potential risk if used in toys and childcare articles," says the EU's 2005 toys directive.
And even if phthalates such as DEHP are phased out by European manufacturers, it can still enter Europe in imported products -- nearly two-thirds of which originate in Asia, mainly China.
"If a non-toy product is manufactured outside the EU and imported, there's very little protection -- a notification to the authorities and not much more," says Schaible of the EEB. "The process to remove only a few very high-concern chemicals will take several decades at this pace... Decision-makers proposed back in October 2008 a dozen substances to be phased out, but measures will only be in place for some of these by 2016."
RIGHT TO KNOW
To protect European consumers in the meantime -- or help people protect themselves if they are concerned about chemicals in their products -- the EU has instituted transparency provisions, laws to make information about the chemical composition of products available to any consumer who asks.
But Vito Buonsante of activist lawyers group ClientEarth says these "right to know" laws were largely gutted of their powers from the outset, due to pressure from industry lobbyists. And as the European Environmental Bureau's study shows, virtually nobody in the EU has even heard about that right -- not the shoppers who are supposed to ask the questions, nor the retailers who are supposed to give the answers.
As well as sponsoring the lab testing, the EEB sent out 158 "right to know" requests to 60 European retailers between April and August this year. More than half did not answer at all, and only 22 percent gave a response that met the minimum standards laid down by the laws.
"In practice it is extremely complicated, even for companies that want to comply, to find out about the presence of dangerous chemicals in the products we buy," says Buonsante. "There are fines foreseen for not providing the information, but so far these provisions have been ignored."