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Science Matters: New York Times Ignores Chemical Research, Undermines Product Safety and Puts Essential Products at Risk

Have you ever counted all of the items you physically touch in a day? Everything from the soap you lather on your hands, the shoes you lace up on the way out the door, the TV remote you grab to watch your favorite show, the mobile phone you dial to call a family member, or the bike helmet you hopefully wear for that scenic ride with a friend. All of these inventions are in some way products of chemistry. In fact, more than 96% of all manufactured goods are directly touched by the business of chemistry.

Chemistry plays a critical role in helping people live safe, healthy lives each and every day. The benefits that chemicals contribute to modern products, technology, and our everyday living are valuable only if those chemicals can be managed responsibly.

A series of articles in the New York Times is perpetuating the false notion that phthalates, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and flame retardants are the “triple crown of toxicity.” This concept makes for salacious reading but much of the content within these stories is demonstrably inaccurate. (See the facts below.)

The chemical industry has invested billions of dollars in scientific research to protect public and environmental health, and strengthen the safety of our products. We take this responsibility very seriously. High-quality research is essential to guide health professionals, policy-makers and the average person in making well-informed, evidence-based decisions. At its core, the business of chemistry is all about science—science aimed at driving innovations in products and technologies that help make our lives healthier, safer, more sustainable and more productive.

Consumers want to know that the products they purchase — from sunscreens to eye glasses to laundry detergent — will perform as expected, provide the desired benefit and that the chemicals that make up these products are safe for their intended use. Through extensive scientific research, real-world safe exposure levels are established for ingredients used in products. It’s important to know that the mere presence of a substance does not imply that a chemical will lead to adverse effects. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes, “The measurement of an environmental chemical in a person’s blood or urine does not by itself mean that the chemical causes disease.”

ACC and its members work with retailers, distributors, customers and others in the value chain to foster the safe use of chemicals and provide scientific and safety information about chemical ingredients in products. We also developed the Responsible Care® Product Safety Code to drive continuous improvement in chemical product safety as part of the industry’s signature environmental, health, safety and security management system.

Our government also plays an important role in protecting human health and the environment. Contrary to the impression given by the New York Times’ stories, chemicals in commerce are subject to government oversight, primarily by six federal agencies:

  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
  • Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Those agencies operate under more than a dozen federal laws and regulations. Today, any chemistry introduced or imported into the U.S. must undergo rigorous review and approval processes by federal agencies, such as EPA and FDA.

The August 26 article, “The 3 Scariest Chemicals to Watch Out for in Your Home,”highlights a flawed “one-size-fits-all” approach to describe chemistries, which is alarmist and misleading.

It is critical to take into account the significant differences among compounds that are part of a chemical family. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, we need a fact-based discussion about how these compounds differ from each other, what they do affect — and what they don’t — in terms of human and environmental health.

It’s clear that New York Times readers are being misled and misinformed by much of the information in these stories. This is why we’ve put together the following fact checker on some of the inaccurate claims they make and we will continue to update it as the series is released.

The FACTS: Phthalates

Phthalates are categorized as high and low, depending on their molecular weight. The studies which are referenced in the New York Times article only refer to low molecular weight phthalates, such as DEHP, or non-phthalate plasticizers. These studies do not include high molecular weight phthalates. The term “phthalate” simply refers to a family of chemicals that happen to be structurally similar, but which are functionally and toxicologically distinct from each other. Because the article doesn’t make this distinction and only broadly uses the term “phthalate,” readers are misled to believe all phthalates are harmful to human health. In the past six years, numerous government regulatory agencies, including the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the Australian National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), and Canada’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and Ministry of Health, have found, after rigorous regulatory review, that DINP and DIDP are safe as currently used.

Thus, retailers and consumers around the world can continue to rely on high molecular weight phthalates, such as DINP and DIDP, for countless products, from electrical wiring that connects our computers, to the upholstery in our cars, to the coatings that can make our clothing more durable and weather resistant.

The FACTS: PFAS

PFAS are a large and diverse universe of chemistries that makes possible the products that power our lives, including the cellphones, tablets and telecommunications we use every day to connect with our friends and family; alternative energy sources; and medical devices that help keep us healthy. In fact, right now, PFAS are being used to support COVID-19 testing equipment and to provide lifesaving protection in medical garments – both uses that are helping save lives around the world in the midst of this pandemic. PFAS are vital to enabling our lives in the 21st century.

However, all PFAS are not the same. Scientific research clearly shows there are several key differences in PFAS compounds, including chemical structure, chain length, and composition. These differences impact their environmental and health profiles, such as degradation in the environment, toxicity and retention in humans, plants and animals. For instance, fluoropolymers (one type of PFAS) have a well-established safety profiles and several of them have been evaluated against and met internationally accepted criteria to be considered “polymers of low concern,” indicating that they do not present a significant concern for human health or the environment.  It is neither scientifically accurate nor appropriate to adopt policies that group all PFAS together and doing so could potentially limit access to products families and businesses rely on.

The FACTS: Flame Retardants

Flame retardants help prevent and slow fires, protect property and save lives. They are an important tool in the overall “tool box” of fire safety measures that help reduce fire risk and meet fire safety standards. Flame retardants can provide an important layer of fire protection by preventing and delaying ignition, slowing the combustion process, and making a material self-extinguishing.

Recently there has been a push by some organizations to regulate flame retardants as a group, suggesting that all of these types of chemistries, regardless of their toxicological profile are inherently dangerous. Despite flame retardants all sharing the same function — retarding fires — their composition, and consequently the risk they might pose, can vary greatly from substance to substance. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences (NAS) has concluded that flame retardants cannot be evaluated as a single class.1

The North American Flame Retardant Alliance (NAFRA) advocates for a transparent regulatory system that provides both strong fire protection and chemical safety. This includes support for the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act — overwhelmingly bipartisan legislation enacted in 2016 — that fundamentally strengthens the federal regulation of chemical safety and will help ensure chemicals are safe for their intended uses.

Science matters when it comes to protecting public health. Individual chemistries are extensively studied, reviewed and regulated by government bodies. High quality data, not misleading characterizations of entire classes of chemistry, should underscore these reviews, in order to protect human health and allow us to use the products of chemistry that make our lives better.

It is our hope the reporter of this New York Times article series, and others who write about chemistries, will take greater efforts to focus on the best practices and principles for high-quality research rather than engage in what can only be called conjecture.

We expect to read about more falsehoods throughout the next couple of weeks as the New York Times resumes this series, and we will continue to update this page to clarify any misleading information that is published.

1National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS), “A Class Approach to Hazard Assessment of Organohalogen Flame Retardants,” May 2019.

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