San Francisco Phthalates Ban Under Fire from Scientists and Retailers

Published February 1, 2007

A San Francisco ordinance banning the sale, distribution, and manufacture of baby-related items containing any level of the chemical bisphenol A and certain levels of phthalates has been sharply criticized by scientists and challenged in state court.

The ordinance was scheduled to take effect December 1, 2006, but implementation has been delayed by a pair of lawsuits challenging San Francisco’s authority to enact such a law.

According to scientists who have studied the issue, the chemicals pose no threat to babies unless ingested in amounts that far exceed current levels.

Phthalates and bisphenol A are polycarbonate plastics used in a wide array of products. They give necessary flexibility to vinyl and soft plastics and have been used in baby bottles and reusable water bottles for decades.

They also are also essential components in children’s medical devices and bicycle safety helmets.

Several States Rejected Bans

Similar bans have been proposed but ultimately rejected by the California, Maryland, and Minnesota legislatures.

The San Francisco measure is a response to environmental activists’ allegations that rodents exposed to bisphenol A and certain phthalates experienced abnormalities in the development of sexual organs. Scientific studies have concluded real-world human exposure poses no threat to adults or babies.

Regardless of whether the city has legal authority to enforce such a law, scientists say, the law that was passed will provide no health benefits.

Scientists Reject Asserted Risk

“When it comes to phthalates in the plastic of baby bottles, it is far from clear that there are any scientists who believe that there are chemicals migrating from baby bottles and being ingested by babies in a manner that constitutes a health risk,” observed Trevor Butterworth, contributing editor for the George Mason University Statistical Assessment Service, in a December 5, 2006 news release.

The San Francisco law is modeled after a European Union law that limits bisphenol A and phthalates in children’s products.

“The European politicians who voted on the ban did so against the recommendation of the scientific advisory board they had commissioned to investigate the risk to health,” Butterworth added.

An October 2006 report submitted by the San Francisco Legislative Analysts informed the city’s Board of Supervisors that “monitoring and enforcement could be expensive, depending upon the number of covered businesses. It might be worthwhile to consider whether a voluntary compliance program might be most efficient.”

Richard Woo, a biochemist and owner of Citikids Baby News, told the December 4 Bay City News that the city overstepped its authority and defied scientific wisdom in proposing its ban.

“The only substitute products they are proposing do not have a track record. They will probably have to do studies and when they do, they will find they get some similar results,” said Woo.

EPA Says Chemicals Safe

Butterworth noted the Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Commission have declared products containing the two chemicals pose no risk. “Furthermore, the EPA uses the most conservative method of determining toxicity of any regulatory agency,” said Butterworth in the news release. “So when the EPA decided this summer that the risk from the phthalate DBP is less than previously thought, even the most hardened environmental hysteric should have stopped to catch their breath.”

“This is yet another battle in a long, protracted war being waged by anti-chemical activists. No matter what the science shows, if it is ‘natural’ it must be good, and if it is man-made it must be banned,” said Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

“I suspect the courts will strike this down, as only Congress has the right to regulate interstate commerce,” Burnett added. “And if it isn’t struck down, San Franciscans will very quickly begin to miss many of the products they currently take for granted. The bridge to Oakland will be very crowded with people looking to do their shopping there.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

Butterworth, T. “Mass Hysteria About ‘Toxic’ Toys is Spreading,” George Mason University Statistical Assessment Service, December 5, 2006,