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Group links nail polish to birth defects


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An environmental group Tuesday warned women of childbearing age to avoid using nail polish that contains a chemical that has been shown to cause birth defects in laboratory animals.

A report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) said the chemical in question is called dibutyl phthalate or DBP. Phthalates are a class of industrial plasticizers that were invented in the 1930s. They are often used in cosmetics because they make nail polish flexible, help bleed the chemicals of fragrances, and help lotion better penetrate the skin. They aren't always required to be labeled on the products.

Lab animals given dibutyl phthalate had higher numbers of offspring with birth defects, especially of the male reproductive system.

In September, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the results of a study that tested 289 adults aged 20-60 for seven metabolites associated with exposure to various phthalates and found it was present in all of those tested, with women of childbearing age having the highest levels.

Jane Houlihan, Senior Analyst at the EWG, said women between the ages of 15-45 are probably exposed to dibutyl phthalate through cosmetics and particularly nail polish.

"We think that women of childbearing are should avoid all exposures to dibutyl phthalate when they're considering becoming pregnant, when they're pregnant or when they're nursing," Houlihan said.

But a spokesman for The Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association said nail polishes and cosmetics are safe.

"The Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, Health Canada and other scientific bodies in Europe, North America, and Japan have examined phthalates and allow their use. Phthalates were also reviewed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an independent body that reviews the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics. CIR found them to be safe for use in cosmetics. Consumers can have confidence in their cosmetics given their oversight by FDA and a long history of safe use," said Dr. Jerry McEwen, vice-president of science at CTFA.

Still, there are several unanswered questions about the chemical, including what level of exposure causes illness.

"By directly measuring levels of phthalate metabolites in urine, we have markedly improved our understanding of human exposure to phthalates and also improved our ability to determine potential health risks from exposure," said John Brock, a senior chemist at CDC.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group says male birth defects have been on the rise since the 1970s. In Puerto Rico, one study found girls who were experiencing premature puberty had high levels of a different phthalate in their bodies. The EWG said the last tests for safe close exposure were done in rats in 1953. They're calling for more testing and clearer product labeling.

"We believe manufacturers should fully label their products and that the label should be legible for consumers," Houlihan said. "We're also advising that pregnant women avoid exposures to dibutyl phthalate even while they're trying to get pregnant, while they're pregnant or while they're nursing."

The CDC said additional studies are needed to examine possible sources of the exposures, as well as the need for more insight into the safety and health effects of these chemicals.

Battle over phthalates heats up
September 28, 1999

Environmental Working Group
The Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association

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