Seeking fresh momentum in their push for stronger federal toxics law, environmental groups today are homing in on a nearly universal path of human exposure to chemicals: the home.
A new report by the Ecology Center, a member of the broader coalition lobbying for greater U.S. EPA power over hazardous substances, found that household flooring made with vinyl is nearly twice as likely as non-PVC tiles to contain detectable levels of chemicals such as lead, cadmium and chlorine. Separate tests found some flooring brands carried elevated levels of phthalates, controversial plastic additives, that were banned in children's items in 2008.
The Michigan-based center's findings open up an avenue for the green and public health advocates in the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition -- which continues to press Congress to add more heft to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) -- to personalize the complex issue of chemical regulation. With lead, cadmium and six types of phthalates currently restricted in children's toys, TSCA reform backers are questioning whether youngsters may be exposed to similar health risks by sitting or playing on floors.
Phthalates are "not one of those [chemicals] where we have some gray area," Ecology Center research director Jeff Gearhart said in an interview, pointing to several studies linking debris from vinyl flooring and other products to asthma and respiratory allergies in children. "We need to look at TSCA reform. ... [I]t doesn't make sense to ban these chemicals in toys when they're used in everything else."
A third round of tests performed by the Ecology Center on popular vinyl-coated wallpaper brands found elevated levels of risky chemicals in about half the samples, with 13 percent containing cadmium in excess of the 75-parts-per-million standard set for children's toys by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
But the green group noted that its sampling "is not necessarily representative of all flooring and wallpaper on the market" and does not automatically mean the products are exposing homeowners to similarly high levels of heavy metals -- two caveats that drew sharp criticism of the report from the vinyl industry.
Environmental advocates "haven't been able to find data that shows harm, so they're trying to find any evidence that there may potentially be harm or they're finding things that can be linked to problems," said Allen Blakey, vice president of government affairs at the Vinyl Institute, in an interview. "It's always 'linked to' and 'may be' and 'could be,' but never actually any evidence of harm."
The growing body of scientific literature indicating that phthalates interfere with endocrine and reproductive functioning was joined yesterday by a new study from China. Another report released yesterday by green groups found that even though some of the same plastic additives limited in U.S. children's toys are also banned from European versions of the products, many common retail items in the region contain phthalates without public labeling of their presence.
Alongside bisphenol A, a common ingredient in canned goods that studies have linked to endocrine disruption, phthalates are fast becoming poster children for the politically volatile Washington debate over updating TSCA. In addition to a CPSC re-review of three of the six banned phthalates, the regulatory process is moving forward at EPA, where a proposal to add several types of the plastic softeners to a list of "chemicals of concern" remains under review by the White House budget office amid pushback from industry representatives (Greenwire, Sept. 28).
Meanwhile, Democratic bills that would empower EPA to require that manufacturers verify the safety of new chemicals before putting them on the market and to uncover more health data on potentially risky substances are unlikely to come to a vote before next spring at the earliest.
In the interim, Gearhart noted, CPSC could act to limit plastic additives in home improvement items that could leave children vulnerable to exposure. Asked about the prospect of EPA using its existing TSCA authority to curb the presence of chemicals in flooring and wallpaper, he said, "I'm not going to be holding my breath on that one."
The chances of today's report drawing out more business buy-in to the TSCA reform process appear equally slim. Blakey blasted the center's testing as a "distraction" and "scare-mongering" aimed at products that are used in commerce, from supermarkets to hospitals, without major health consequences.
"These groups are not so interested in science," Blakey said. "They're interested in political power and trying to force their way into getting TSCA rewritten the way they want it."