A study released Wednesday says people's exposure to certain harmful chemicals in personal care products, toys and household goods has declined, and partially credits government bans and pressure from a San Francisco-based advocacy group for reducing the prevalence of potentially dangerous toxins.
"The success of advocacy efforts by public health and environmental organizations such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics may partly explain some of our findings," the study says.
Yet the study also reveals that more Americans are exposed to different, potentially hazardous and largely unknown toxins than they were about a decade ago, raising additional health concerns.
Research for the study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, was conducted at UC San Francisco, which tracked chemical exposure in more than 11,000 Americans from 2001 to 2010.
Researchers were looking for phthalates -- a class of chemicals that are common in makeup, beauty supplies, cleaners, children's toys, food, building materials and household items such as shower curtains or vinyl flooring. Because of daily exposure, most phthalates are found in 80 percent of people.
"A lot of times people throw up their hands and say there are so many (chemical) exposures, we can't do anything about it," said Tracey Woodruff, one of the study's authors and director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF. "Well, yes we can."
Previous studies from UCSF and other scientific and medical organizations, including the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and Physicians for Social Responsibility, have found that exposure to even low doses of some phthalates may cause early-onset menopause, infertility, birth defects and developmental disorders.
Concern about this large and still mysterious class of chemicals pushed the federal government in 2008 to ban permanently three of types of phthalates from children's toys and child care items. The ingredients in personal care and many household products are not regulated by the government.
The study says exposure rates to the three chemicals the government banned declined between 20 and 50 percent. But the chemicals are in more than toys, so the government can't take all the credit for the decline, the authors say.
Two of those banned chemicals have been a hard-fought target of the San Francisco-based Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, an advocacy group that works to remove harmful chemicals from beauty products. The organization got its start with a report in 2002 that highlighted the use of these chemicals in everyday beauty products, including nail polish. But as early as 2004 -- before the government had issued any bans -- beauty companies such as Estee Lauder had stopped using these phthalates.
But the greatest decline was for a chemical that is not banned by the government -- DEP, which is common in fragrances. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has pressured manufacturers to eliminate this chemical, and some have. Johnson & Johnson said recently it will eliminate DEP from all its products by 2015, even though the company says the chemical is not dangerous.
"Because the campaign has focused so exclusively on these phthalates, all of the big companies responded," said Janet Nudelman, who helps lead the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "The industry in a very broad way had a moved away from these chemicals."
But while some harmful chemicals have been pushed out, they have been replaced with other, potentially harmful ingredients, the study found, saying that exposure rates to these chemicals more than doubled over the decade. One chemical, DINP, has been -- added to the Proposition 65 list of chemicals that are known to cause cancer.
Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.