Phthalates are widely used in industrial and consumer products, mainly as plastic softeners and solvents, most frequently for polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, plastics.

Such plastics containing phthalates are used in both industrial and consumer applications such as electrical cable insulation, flooring, carpet backing, automotive parts, footwear, childrens toys and exercise balls.

Phthalates are also used as solvents in lubricants, paints, adhesives, inks, cosmetics and other household products.

When added to plastics, phthalates used as plasticisers provide molecular lubrication, which then imparts softness and malleability.

For this to occur, they must remain chemically unbound within the plastic. Unbound phthalates can migrate and leach from plastics, with the potential for human exposure from the use of phthalate-containing products.

After public and industry comment, NICNAS this year released fi nal versions of a series of 25 hazard assessments on phthalates.

These were accompanied by a final Phthalates Hazard Compendium, also subject to comment, in which the use and hazards, or toxicity, of 24 phthalates were summarised and compared.

This document now allows easy comparisons to be made of health effects of different phthalates and contributes to informed choices by industry of safer phthalates for products.

In addition to these hazard assessments, NICNAS had in 2006 declared nine phthalates used in childrens toys, childcare articles and cosmetics for priority existing chemical public health risk assessment.

The subsequent analyses indicate that selected phthalates show toxic effects in animal tests that may be of public health concern.

These assessments are continuing and will determine whether the use of phthalates with the potential for significant exposure of children - through toys - and adults - through cosmetics - represent unacceptable health risks.

The first of these NICNAS risk assessments will be progressively released for public comment during 2008-09.