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This page was published on 13/10/2004
Published: 13/10/2004

   Environment

Last Update: 13-10-2004  
Related category(ies):
Research policy  |  Environment  |  Pure sciences

 

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Dutch research on softer bio-based ‘softeners' 

As the EU seeks to ban some phthalates – chemicals used as softeners in plastics production – thought to be harmful to animal and possibly human health, Dutch researchers announce a non-toxic alternative could be on the market in a couple of years.

Chemists hard at work in the search for green alternatives © Image: Digital Stock
Chemists hard at work in the search for green alternatives
© Image: Digital Stock

As reported in the Dutch daily Het Financieele Dagblad two weeks ago, scientists from the Wageningen University and Research Centre (WUR) are on a quest to find a ‘green' alternative to phthalate-based softeners which are thought to be harmful to health.

The EU Competitiveness Council (Internal market, industry and research) is seeking a permanent ban on the use of six phthalate chemical softeners - also known as plasticisers - in children's toys and childcare goods.

Phthalate softeners are used in plastics, namely polyvinyl chloride (PVC), to make them more supple. PVC can be found in a huge range of products, such as medical products, in the building and transport trade, in consumer goods and toys, for packaging, in agriculture and even art. In fact, some 4.5 million tonnes of phthalate softeners are used each year worldwide.

Bio-alternative chemicals
A body of research from the 1980s onwards has targeted phthalates as being possibly linked to a range of health issues, including endocrine disruption (i.e. altered hormone and fertility problems) cancer and asthma. Industry advocate groups are quick to denounce such findings as “cherry picking” data to make the phthalate chemical industry look bad.

The first study revealing a connection between health and phthalate softener, published in 1982 by the US' National Toxicology Programme, indicated that rats and mice fed a lifetime's worth - two years - of a phthalate called DEHP eventually developed tumours. Although later European studies question the link between these findings and human health.

Based on alcohol sugars, a team of researchers from the Institute for Agrotechnology and Food Innovation (NL), working together with the PVC industry, has developed an alternative plastic softener which performs similar duties as the old type but will be able to wear the green label. Following further industrial testing, the new material could enter the market within two to three years, according to Kees de Gooijer, director of agrotechnology and food innovation at WUR. 

The European Parliament is still to conduct a second reading on the decision which could lead to changes. The Council's Common Position does not forsee a blanket ban for this application of softeners, according to industry spokespeople. In the case of the main phthalate used in toys, a restriction on the substance's use in toys intended for under three-year-olds that can be placed in the mouth is being sought.

WUR and press reports

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See also

Competitiveness Council main findings (press release, 24 September 2004, p.14)
Het Financieele Dagblad (in NL)
Phthalates information centre
Wageningen University and Research Centre
Industrial technologies research (EU)
Europe to ban PVC toys (BBC, 10 November 1999)

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