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The Plastics Revolution

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo

Last year, a study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that higher levels of phthalate byproducts correlated with obesity and insulin resistance. Another study in the same journal found that higher levels of phthalate byproducts in urine were associated with abnormal thyroid hormone levels in adult men.

Left in the Lurch

Advocacy groups haven't succeeded in their calls for a comprehensive ban on phthalates and BPA, but some national retailers (including Target and Wal-Mart), manufacturers (including Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Nike and Apple) and toymakers have begun voluntary efforts to remove phthalates from their products.

Meanwhile, consumers who might want to limit their exposure to suspect chemicals in plastics may find that difficult. Plastics components must be labeled in some products, but not in others. (For tips on what you can do, see the box at left.)

"Most people haven't had college-level chemistry or advanced chemistry" to know what the alphabet soup of chemicals on labels mean, says Caroline Baier-Anderson, a health scientist with the nonprofit group Environmental Defense and an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

She urges consumers to make the best choices they can. But, she says, "we can expect our government to do more."

Goldman agrees that better product labeling "needs to be dealt with at the pre-consumer level" -- before products get to the shelves -- and urges the manufacturers, too, to "step up to the plate."

One thing nearly everyone agrees on: More science is needed -- more studies of short- and long-term effects, new models of interpreting animal research, better testing methods.

The case of BPA and phthalates is "more subtle" than the classic "one chemical, one disease" model, says Baier-Anderson, as in the case of asbestos or tobacco.

We need a new way, she says, to look at how the "simultaneous exposure to low levels of many chemicals throughout our lives can interact with [biological] systems."

Above all, she says, "we need a meaningful dialogue regarding the interpretation of scientific data, however it is generated."

Ranit Mishori is a family physician and faculty member in the Department of Family Medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.

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