Panel: Plasticizers Are Safe

An independent panel of health experts, led by former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, say there is no scientific evidence that plastic softeners found in vinyl medical equipment or plastic toys can cause cancer.

"You should not worry, our report says," Koop told CBS News. "We studied two plasticizers. We found after 40 years of exposure -- people having used it almost every day -- that there is no need to be concerned."

The committee of experts was convened last year by the American Council on Science and Health to answer concerns by consumer watchdog groups who said that plasticizers -- chemicals used to make plastic flexible - were dangerous for humans when used over a long period of time.

The two plastic softeners studied were di-isonyl phthalate (DINP) and di-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP).

The panel says that evidence showing that DINP can cause liver cancer in rats "has little relevance for humans."

"The panel's findings confirm what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Products Safety Commission have been saying about these products all along," Koop wrote in a paper that was to be delivered in Washington on Tuesday.

A 1997 report by Greenpeace cited European research showing that phthalates found in toys and teethers could leech into the mouths of children and would accumulate in body fat.

While Dr. Koop says the years of using soft plastic medical equipment, such as IV bags or catheters, has proved its safety, he says the amount of plasticizers in toys is "a harder thing to measure."

"But when you consider the short time of exposure for children and how little time they play with things in their mouths out of a given day, for 90 percent of children, they are only absorbing 1/150th of what is toxic," he adds.

However, Dr. Koop suggests that the safety levels for children are adequate.

Despite the panel's confidence in medical supplies, Baxter, a leading producer of medical supplies, has said it is researching alternative materials because of shareholder concerns about the products. But the firm says it isn't promising to phase out intravenous bags and other products made of polyvinyl chloride.

Dr. Daland Juberg of the International Center for Toxicology in Medicine, who was part of the panel, says there are benefits to the plastics in some medical equipment.

"Actually, the panel went beyond just saying there was no harm to humans," he says. "In the case of medical devices, the panel concluded there are clear benefits. As Dr. Koop would tell you, the field of medicine has been advanced greatly by having some of these flexible catheters and other devices available for patient use and safety -- clear benefits from these plasticizer-induced medical devices."