Monday, February 4, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Worrisome chemical found in kids

Seattle Times environment reporter

When parents bring their babies to Seattle pediatrician Sheela Sathyanarayana, she usually tells them to use baby lotions and powders sparingly.

She's done that partly out of concern about phthalates — chemicals that some scientists worry could disrupt children's physical development.

Now Dr. Sathyanarayana's suspicions that phthalates were in the products and entering children's bodies have been confirmed in a study she led at the University of Washington. The study found higher phthalate levels in babies whose parents used lotions, powders and baby shampoo shortly before the tests.

"Now there's an added reason why those exposures might not be so good," said Sathyanarayana, who is a UW physician and researcher. The study was published today in the February issue of the prominent journal Pediatrics.

"I can tell them, 'Your infant doesn't need all of these products, and their skin will be fine otherwise, and these products may contain chemicals that may not be so good for them.' "

The chemical industry, which has been defending phthalates, contends the study is inconclusive and fails to show that very low levels of phthalates are harmful.

"In 50 or more years of use, no reliable evidence has ever been found that phthalates, either alone or in combination, cause negative health effects in humans," said Marian Stanley of the American Chemistry Council.

Phthalates (pronounced thowl-ates) are used to make plastics soft and also are used in products such as cosmetics. But recent research has suggested they can disrupt the endocrine system in animals, including people, by interfering with hormones, particularly male sex hormones such as testosterone.

The latest study analyzed urine samples from 163 infants. It compared the levels of phthalates in children who had recently been treated with lotions, powders and shampoos, versus those who hadn't.

Children treated with baby powder or baby lotion had twice the levels of three different phthalates. The biggest difference was for babies under 8 months old treated with lotion, who had phthalate levels more than five times higher than babies not treated with lotion.

The study found no evidence of higher phthalate levels from pacifiers or diaper-rash creams. Diaper wipes are still an open question. That's because they were used on nearly all of the children tested, so it was hard to look for differences between cases where they were used and cases where they weren't.

The concern for babies is that their bodies are undergoing critical developmental changes orchestrated by hormones.

"It's really thought that our programming for our reproductive health and endocrine health are determined at a very early age," Sathyanarayana said.

Still, there are frustrating gaps in knowledge. Federal agencies haven't established a dangerous level for phthalates. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't regulate the chemicals, though it has been looking at how to study their potential risks.

Meanwhile, most lotions, shampoos and powders don't say if they contain the chemicals.

Last year, despite lobbying from the chemical industry, California imposed a ban on toys with phthalates and required manufacturers to disclose whether children's personal-care products contain the chemicals.

The Washington state Legislature is now debating House Bill 2647, which would ban some phthalates in children's products, including the kinds of lotions cited in the study. It would be the first such ban in the country.

"I think [the latest study] is further evidence that parents and grandparents need to be concerned about what chemicals are being put in the products their kids use every day," said Ivy Sager-Rosenthal of the Washington Toxics Coalition, which is pushing for the ban. "These chemicals don't need to be in these products."

In addition to the UW researchers, contributors to the latest study included the federal Centers for Disease Control, and the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, N.Y. It was funded with federal grants.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company


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