Standardization News

New Plastics Standards Support Safety

A completed suite of phthalates standards aims to improve the safety of consumer products.
Daniel Bergels

Chances are, if you pick up something that is made from plastic, particularly polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or vinyl, you’re interacting with a group of man-made chemicals known as phthalates, which make plastics more flexible and harder to break.

Beyond being particularly challenging to spell, phthalates are found in a wide variety of consumer products, including textiles, food containers, and medical products.

However, studies with rats and mice have found that high levels of some phthalates cause impairment to fertility and birth defects. These effects have not been observed in primates; however, regulatory restrictions have resulted for some applications due to the potential concern for humans. 

In an effort to address this problem, ASTM International members have created a suite of standards to help test for phthalates, supporting government and industry efforts to reduce their potentially harmful presence.

The Push To Limit Phthalates

In 2008, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act restricted the level of phthalates found in children’s toys and child care products. This came after Europe, U.S. states such as California, and some local municipalities began cracking down on the level of phthalate content by setting their own limits.

But acknowledging the potential problem wasn’t enough. Manufacturers needed to know the exact phthalate content of their products.

“Ortho-phthalates were becoming restricted or banned altogether, and the industry needed analytical methods to confidently test for them,” according to Dick Casali, an engineer at Intel’s product ecology lab and a member of the committee on plastics (D20).

So, beginning in 2009 during the committee’s meeting in Vancouver, Ontario, Canada, 25 members of the committee began developing the set of standards.

The Suite of Standards

This new suite of standards provides scientific and repeatable test methods for determining the levels of phthalates in plastics. These test methods can be used by manufacturers as well as third parties such as laboratories to verify results.

The suite includes:

  • A test method to determinate low level, regulated phthalates in plastics by thermal desorption, which helps identify and quantify regulated phthalates (D7823);
  • A vinyl plasticizer library adjunct, which walks an analyst through the mass spectroscopy data interpretation to distinguish between differing, but structurally similar, compounds (ADJD7823S);
  • A guide for analyzing complex phthalates, which shows how to interpret and analyze data from a chromatographic analysis (D7993); and
  • A test method for determining low level, regulated phthalates in plastics by solvent extraction, which quantifies six phthalates by solvent extraction (soon to be published as D8133).

According to Casali, “The complete set of standards is meant to ensure repeatable and comparable phthalate concentration values from analytical testing.”

Since many commercial products may contain a mixture of phthalates, some of which are regulated and some not, it is important for manufacturers to have third-party testing that will accurately interpret the data. This suite of standards can be used by manufacturers to determine phthalate levels in their products, through third-party testing, and ensure that they meet the CPSIA requirements regulated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines.

Ongoing Focus on Safety

Alan Kaufman, senior vice president of technical affairs at The Toy Association Inc., stressed that toy and child care manufacturers have been moving away from phthalates since the late 1990s. Today, restricted phthalates of potential concern are not used in toys.

When asked why phthalates, which are still found in other consumer products such as vinyl floor coverings and automotive interiors, are being regulated more aggressively for child care articles, Kaufman noted that “these are products children interact with on a more consistent basis. A child will spend significant time on a child-sized mattress.”

And any item that is consistently around children has the potential to end up in a child’s mouth, unlike other consumer products such as shower curtains. 

Kaufman also noted that “once finalized, the intent is for the committee on consumer products to include the phthalate suite in the ASTM International toy safety standard” (F963), which is cited by the CPSC, making it mandatory.

While phthalates are typically not found in toys and child care articles, the new suite of standards will help manufacturers ensure their products meet the CPSC’s safety guidelines, directly impacting consumers.

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