Washington State requests comment on draft phthalate plan

The Periodic | By WALKER LIVINGSTON, ESQ

May. 12, 2023

Washington State has requested public comment on its draft Phthalates Action Plan to address the effects that the chemicals have on humans and the environment across the state. The recommendations include suggestions for a cavalcade of different industrial, residential, and governmental sectors across the state that will be used to better understand and address phthalate contamination and exposure around the state.

Regulatory background

  • Phthalates are a class of synthetic chemicals commonly utilized to increase flexibility and durability in plastics. Phthalates are also used as solvents in fragrances and to hold scents longer in certain consumer products and degrade relatively quickly in the environment. However, many of the chemicals are toxic to humans and the environment, leading to hormone disruption, reproductive health issues, and impaired fetal development. Human exposure to phthalates may come from personal care products, food packaging materials, building materials, flooring, and many other commonly used products. Phthalate metabolites are commonly found in the general population, indicating widespread exposure across the country.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been focusing on eight different phthalates in its Phthalates Action Plan, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP), butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP), di-n-pentyl phthalate (DnPP), di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP), diisononyl phthalate (DINP), and diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP). The EPA is concerned about the toxicity and evidence of pervasive exposure to these chemicals through environmental media. In 2014, the EPA issued a Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) for DnPP, that would require manufacturers and importers of the substance to notify EPA at least 90 days before starting or resuming new uses of this chemical.

Washington Phthalates Action Plan

  • In early May 2023, Washington released its own draft Phthalates Action Plan. The plan explains that the state has an “incomplete” set of laws and rules related to phthalates and that the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) and Department of Health (Health) developed the action plan as a way to reduce sources of phthalates and eliminate exposure pathways.
  • The action plan contains both broad and specific recommendations to reduce, investigate, and phase out the use of phthalates in Washington based on feedback from stakeholders from government, industry, and environmentalist groups. The plan includes recommendation to reduce phthalates in consumer products, as well as reducing the reintroduction of phthalates into the environment. Ecology and Health based the action plan on the Chemical Action Plan requirements found in the state’s Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxins rule. The departments explained that although phthalates do not require a Chemical Action Plan under the rule, the requirements provided helpful guidance in developing the action plan.
  • The EPA’s National Estuary Program funded the state’s action plan via a near term action grant in 2021. In the plan, Ecology and Health explain that the final version of the action plan is expected to be published in December 2023.
  • One of the major topics that the plan focuses on is consumer products. The action plan recommends that Ecology lead a study into how phthalates are used in consumer products, and whether Ecology should begin listing phthalates-containing consumer products as priority products under the Safer Products for Washington law (SPW) in future cycles of implementation. Ecology would focus specifically on products that contribute to phthalates exposures in sensitive populations, such as children. In addition, Ecology plans to provide increased transparency and certifications for priority products, specifically focusing on certification subsidies for phthalate-free products in categories where phthalates are commonly used. The action plan also highlights that subsidy funding should prioritize small businesses, women and minority-owned businesses, and veteran-owned businesses.
  • Ecology and Health also suggested various food contact material recommendations. Phthalates are present in a wide variety of food contact materials and may contaminate food via this exposure. The plan explains that diet is a “significant and often the dominant source” of phthalate exposure in the population, especially for phthalates with a high molecular weight. The recommendations regarding food contact materials include creating a Health-led workgroup that focuses on reducing the sources of phthalates in food and beverages. In addition, the plan recommends that Ecology consider evaluating phthalate-containing food contact materials as priority products under SPW.
  • Children may be exposed to phthalates through daycare and early child facilities. Some of the recommendations to reduce child exposure to phthalates in those facilities include an Ecology-led program to swap out durable products in the facilities that contain phthalates, such as vinyl flooring. In addition, both Health, Ecology, and the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) are recommended to develop educational and outreach materials that can be used to reduce the use of phthalate-containing materials in the facilities.
  • The plan also details how many healthcare products (such as catheters, tubing, respiratory devices, and more) contain phthalates. Phthalate exposure during medical procedures can be much higher than the average level of exposure a person receives, leading to concern from Health and Ecology over the potential effects. The plan recommends that Ecology evaluate medical products that contain phthalates as priority products under SPW, including breast pumps, accessories, and medical exam gloves, where phthalate-free alternatives are already prevalent on the market. In addition, the plan recommends that Health and Ecology work with healthcare companies and other organizations to increase awareness about phthalate exposure through healthcare products and services and identify possible alternatives and services that meet the standards for patient care in the state. The third recommendation from the plan suggests that Health conduct education and outreach among the healthcare community and other stakeholders to reduce occupational and patient exposure to phthalates. Finally, the plan recommends that Health investigate phthalate exposure from menstrual and incontinence products and share results with Ecology to consult for next steps.
  • Some phthalate exposure may come from building materials which also may release phthalates into the environment. There are many alternatives to phthalate-containing building materials already on the market, which the plan notes may be suitable alternatives for the phthalate-containing products. The first recommendation suggests that Ecology should leverage its existing resources to contribute to standards for state-supported building projects that use products that do not contain phthalates. In addition, the plan recommends that Ecology engage with building design, construction, and maintenance project teams to develop materials for the building industry to reduce the use of phthalate-containing materials in building materials in the state.
  • The plan also includes several recommendations for preferred purchasing programs at the state level that would reduce the purchase of phthalate-containing materials across the entire state government. Many of the state agencies (as well as local governments and non-profits) utilize statewide contracts covered by the Washington Department of Enterprise Services (DES) to make purchasing decisions easier. The plan recommends that Ecology provide DES with technical input on preferred purchasing guidance to reduce the number of phthalate-containing products purchased through DES-managed contracts. The plan also contains a recommendation for DES to incorporate guidance and technical information from Ecology for new statewide contracts going forward and to amend existing contracts when feasible. Finally, the plan recommends that DES work with other state agencies, as well as the State Efficiency and Environmental Performance Office, to track purchase of products containing phthalates as well as alternatives to those products to reduce the purchase of phthalate-containing products.
  • Biosolids represent another major area of phthalate emissions, as biosolids from composting or wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) may contain significant amounts of phthalate emissions into the environment, and therefore pose a risk to human health. The plan recommends that Ecology evaluate the transport and breakdown of upstream-sourced phthalates in WWTPs in Washington. The evaluation will provide insights on the pathways that phthalates take after they are introduced to WWTPs, and how those phthalates end up in wastewater solids used to produce biosolids. In addition, the plan recommends that Ecology consider how phthalates may migrate from biosolids to soil and groundwater, as well as through plant uptake in crops grown on soil that has had biosolids applied to it. The plan also suggests that Ecology evaluate the environmental fate of phthalates contained in biosolids across the state.
  • Non-biosolid compost also received attention in the action plan. The plan recommends that Ecology develop and implement a plan to test compostable containers and serviceware for phthalates to determine the level of risk that those containers may cause for human health or the environment. In addition, the plan recommends that Ecology test for the levels of phthalates in finished compost that comes from facilities that process municipal feedstocks of compost.
  • For recycling products, the plan recommends that Ecology gather information on the presence of phthalates in the recycling stream. The plan also suggests that Ecology work with consumer product and packaging groups in a workgroup for creating voluntary reporting and labeling protocols for packaging that contains phthalates.
  • Landfills represent a significant source of phthalates in the environment, as about 30% (by weight) of all municipal solid waste in the U.S. that is interred in landfills is plastic that may contain phthalates. The plan recommends first that Ecology perform a study on the occurrence of phthalates that occurs in landfill leachate to be conducted by an independent third party. The plan also recommends a similar study on landfill gas that may include phthalates.
  • Washington State has required phthalate monitoring in drinking water since 1993 (the EPA also requires phthalate monitoring in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act). Based on the observed levels of phthalates in Washington drinking water, the plan recommends reviewing data for public water systems (PWS) and state health advisories to identify data gaps within the system on potential impacts of phthalates in drinking water. The plan also recommends that Health provide education to partner organizations on the use of phthalate-free sample collection and operational equipment products for sample contamination.
  • Within the aquatics sector, the plan notes that phthalates have become “ubiquitous environmental contaminants” due to the widespread use of the chemicals across industrial, commercial, and residential uses. The state overall has limited information on the toxicity and presence of phthalates in aquatic organisms in the state and recommends reviewing existing literature and beginning new studies on the impact of phthalates on aquatic organisms, both in the context of the environment and human health.
  • The final section of the plan focuses on phthalate exposure and prevalence in the air. Some commercial and industrial sources in the state emit ambient concentrations of phthalates into the air, which can lead to environmental and human exposure to the chemicals. The plan recommends that Ecology should contact air regulatory partners within the state and begin or improve air monitoring of phthalates in the state. In addition, the plan recommends that Ecology pollution prevention staff and facilities begin to identify and address phthalate emissions reductions around the state based on the results of the air monitoring.

Impact of the report

  • The report is a wide-ranging document with relatively few concrete regulatory plans for the future, however its impact may be felt in many different sectors across the state. The primary implementing departments will be Health and Ecology across the recommendations, but DCYF, DES, and other departments will certainly help with implementing some of the different recommendations along the way. None of the document is currently set in stone, as the departments have requested comment on the document until June 14, 2023.
  • Although each of the recommendations focuses on a certain sector, the chance for recommendations that in practice cross between sectors is high. For example, compostable food contact materials that may contain phthalates are identified in the compost materials section but will also likely be connected to any implemented recommendations for food contact materials. The wide prevalence of phthalates across various industrial, commercial, and residential sectors likely means that there will be significant overlap in the future of most implemented recommendations.

To contact the author of this analysis, please email Walker Livingston.
To contact the editor of this analysis, please email Patricia Iscaro.

Key Documents and Dates

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