Phasing Out Dibutyl Phthalate:

The New York Times reports that several cosmetic makers are ending the use of dibutyl phthalate in nail polish due to concerns about possible health effects.

Some studies have linked exposure to dibutyl phthalate — a plasticizing ingredient that has been used to increase flexibility in nail polishes as well as medical equipment — with testicular problems in rats and humans. The chemical is banned from use in cosmetics in Europe and is considered a reproductive toxin by California.

A study that examined nail polishes and perfumes, published in 2004 in The Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, concluded that the amount of exposure to dibutyl phthalate from these cosmetics is relatively small. The study cautioned, however, that total exposure to the chemical from multiple sources may be greater and requires further investigation.

Companies are adjusting formulas even though beauty executives said the ingredient is safe in the concentrations in which it is used in cosmetics.

UPDATE: A commenter assumes that I posted this item because I find something wrong with the companies' decision. That is not the case, but I understand how my lack of comment could have led to that conclusion.

There has been an active debate over the health risks of phthalates for some time, and I found the story interesting insofar as it suggests that manufacturers are becoming more concerned about potential liability, additional regulations, or negative consumer reaction. It is also interesting to me because the fear of phthalates seems to be much greater in Europe than in the United States. Such differences in risk perceptions are not unusual -- Europeans tend to be more afraid of agricultural biotechnology and food additives, but less afraid of nuclear energy and, it seems, secondhand smoke -- but are quite interesting.

Do you think it is too late to start signing up my class action clients?
9.7.2006 11:20am
Duncan Frissell (mail):

testicular problems in rats and humans.

Another argument against cross-dressing...
9.7.2006 11:53am

It more sounds to me like a reason to skip "second base".
9.7.2006 12:08pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
There are a lot of things you can't find any more. You can't find household lye for your sink anymore; it is a discontinued product. (Not that I think it was that bad of a safety hazard, I think it has more to do with law enforcement or Homeland Security exerting influence. Too many instances of criminals using it to destroy evidence maybe.)

Next, it became extremely difficult for me last year to buy a Ronson flint for my Zippo. Could not find it in any grocery store. Although drug stores still have them. Lighter fluid for that same Zippo is behind the counter now as well.
9.7.2006 12:26pm
Shake-N-Bake (www):
Medis, unless the bases have changed, I think "third base" is the one to avoid.
9.7.2006 12:31pm

I think it depends on who you talk to, but here is one attempt to summarize:
9.7.2006 12:39pm
Jonathan H. Adler (mail) (www):
Folks -- Can we keep the comments a bit more on-topic? Thanks. JHA
9.7.2006 1:20pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
This will be a serious health concern to all males who wear nail polish, I suppose.
9.7.2006 1:43pm
So... the story is that an ingredient is toxic, and companies are starting to phase it out, and it's been banned elsewhere for its toxicity. Okay... so what? I get the sense that you're trying to imply this is somehow bad, but for the life of me I can't see how.
9.7.2006 1:47pm
Crunchy Frog:
Although the amount of exposure to the chemical itself may be small, you can pretty much guarantee that the exposure to potential lawsuits would be quite large...
9.7.2006 1:54pm
Dear Professor Adler,

I think you may be learning an important lesson about how the internet typically reacts to phrases like "testicular problems in rats and humans".

Sincerely yours,

P.S. More seriously, in its own way this exchange was perfectly on topic. Part of what drives our handling of these issues, particularly in litigation, is the degree to which people create vivid/graphic images in their mind of the harm occurring, particularly to themselves. Indeed, research has shown that the way in which people process low-probability events is tied to the presence of such images. One notable example is plane crashes, but various sorts of medical events provide similar examples. So, it is perfectly on point to discuss the images a story like this might provoke.
9.7.2006 2:06pm
I have nothing to add to the debate as far as legal considerations, but I'd agree with Medis, my first reaction was "So what? How many men wear nail polish in this culture?".
Unless one wants to highlight yet another case of how the fear of litigation, even when based on questionable or unproven science, is driving business decisions. I wonder, is there a treatise showing if and when this might seriously impede American competitiveness?

BTW, I'd question that Europeans are less fearful of nuclear energy, at least as far as Germany is concerned. There nuclear power is a politically hot topic generating regular , frequently violent protests, which have contributed a lot to the total moratorium on nuclear energy.
9.7.2006 4:00pm
BobN (mail):

This will be a serious health concern to all males who wear nail polish, I suppose.

Uh... testicular atrophy appears to be a result of fetal exposure, so I guess this will be a health concern to all males whose mothers wear nail polish.
9.7.2006 4:09pm
Houston Lawyer:

I found some kind of lye drain cleaner at Home Depot the other day. It worked wonders on the sink. It actually drains loudly now.
9.7.2006 4:13pm
Waldensian (mail):
I'm only going to worry about this after I figure out how to say "phthalates." And that may take a while.

At some point someone invented that word; why on earth would they choose to start it with four consonants?!?
9.7.2006 5:57pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
As usual, the efforts of neo-luddites to ban everything result in exaggeration of potential toxicities for phthalates. Phthalates are common entities in the modern world and are present in most plastics. If you leave your car in the sun on a hot, sunny day, the thin coating of haze on the insides of your windows is from evaporation of the phthalates in the vinyls and plastics in your car. (Yeah, I know, an excuse to get the all-leather interior.)

Clinical laboratorians extensively studied phthalates because they leach into blood products that are stored in plastic bags. Everyone who receives a blood transfusion gets a dose of phthalates. Decades of study on different phthalates from different formulations of plastic bags have not shown any evidence of toxic effects in humans.

In the butyl phthalate toxicity studies, pregnant female rats were fed by oral gavage (tubes shoved down their esophaguses into their stomachs) olive oil laced with massive amounts of dibutyl phthalate on days 6-20 of their pregnancies. (The average rat pregancy lasts 22 days, so this was most of pregnancy.) The researchers found higher rates of low fetal weights, higher rates of skeletal malformations in all newborn rats, and higher rates of undescended testes in male newborn rats.

How does the above study compare with occasional inhalation of minute doses of butyl phthalate? As with most such toxicity studies, there is no correlation between the rat experiments (using ridiculous conditions and massively high doses) and human toxicity in the real world.

The companies are scared that these studies will result in product liability lawsuits, and who can blame them? Bad science, unethical lawyers, bribed judges, and ignorant jurors have cost companies billions of dollars in losses for products that were not toxic.
9.7.2006 10:03pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
Many chemicals become carcinogens only after they become metabolized. Rats and humans have different metabolic pathways, so what might be a problem for rats is not a problem for men. These kinds of studies also expose the test animals to gigantic doses to keep the sample size reasonable. Then they extrapolate to a low dose in humans.

As for the Europeans banning dibutyl phthalate in cosmetics, what would you expect from the highly risk averse nanny states you find there. That being said, I agree with the Europeans on Mad Cow disease. They take it seriously, and have an ongoing monitoring problem. By contrast the USDA is not protecting the American people. We sample only about 20,000 out of a yearly slaughter herd of 35 million. Although last year they bumped that up to 400,000, but only for one year. More troubling, the USDA makes assumptions we know to be false. For example they assume you only need to test "downer cattle," which are cattle too sick to walk. But Mad Cow disease has been found in ambulatory cattle in Japan, UK, and Europe. It's all on the web. While K Mart can track an item on one of its shelves back to the manufacturer, we often have trouble tracing sick cattle. So my advice is to eat only range-fed beef or kosher beef. The Jews have more sense than to slaughter a sick animal for human consumption.
9.7.2006 11:25pm

I'm only going to worry about this after I figure out how to say "phthalates."

A good thing the phthalates don't cause any eye conditions that ophthalmologists would work on.
9.8.2006 1:45am
Obviously phthalates were invented by the USSR as a plot against the West: only Russian could stack that many consonants to start a word.
9.8.2006 4:44pm