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msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/22/2010 11:12:48 AM ET 2010-11-22T16:12:48

Some of the very chemicals that Congress banned from children’s toys and child care products in 2009 are found in flooring and wallpaper products sold across the U.S., a new report claims.

Researchers from a nonprofit environmental group called the Ecology Center tested more than 2,000 wallpapers and floor coverings for toxic substances. Along with low levels of some heavy metals, such as cadmium and lead, the researchers discovered significant levels of phthalates, a hormone-like chemical.

A small number of human studies and many animal tests have linked phthalates to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive changes, liver toxicity and cancer, according to the report released today by the group in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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Most of the vinyl wallpapers and floor coverings tested contained some level of phthalates. Certain types of floor coverings do not – for example, those made of hard wood, cork, bamboo and natural linoleum.

Look up test results on home-improvement products on Healthystuff.org

Most of us have some exposure to phthalates — they’re substances commonly added to plastics to increase their flexibility and durability. The issue has been figuring out how the chemicals get into people's bodies and what kinds of effects that has, said Shanna Swan, an expert unaffiliated with the new study and a professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Swan’s own studies found that higher phthalate levels in pregnant women were linked to alterations in the reproductive tracts of baby boys. Rodent studies support the connection between the chemical and disruptions to male reproductive development, which scientists believe is due to anti-testosterone effects of phthalates.

Studies like those are what prompted Congress to virtually ban the chemical in toys by limiting the amounts of certain phthalates to 0.1 percent.

What raised concern about the Ecology Center’s findings is that some flooring contained more than 12 percent phthalates. For example, Armstrong’s Initiator Vinyl Sheet contained 3.1 percent of a kind of phthalate that has been permanently banned, as well as another 9.8 percent of a phthalate that has been banned while researchers study it further.

“It stands to reason that we don’t want our children to have higher exposure from our walls and our floors and our furniture than we are allowing them to have in their toys,” Swan said. “I don’t think at this point we can say this stuff has to be banned, but people should be aware that scientists are concerned about these products and don’t want to see children exposed to them any more than necessary.”

The concern, when it comes to vinyl floor coverings is that phthalates don’t stay in the mix. They are constantly being emitted from the vinyl. One example we’re all familiar with is the smell we encounter in a new car — that is due to phthalates seeping into the air from the vinyl dashboard.

The results of the new study may help explain measurements made by Swedish researchers who found phthalates in everything from house dust to amniotic fluid and breast milk. The new data show that there are many sources contributing to people’s exposure, said Carl-Gustaf Bornehag, a professor of public health sciences at Karlstad University. Bornehag’s studies have linked phthalates to asthma and allergies in children.

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Ultimately, Swan said, people should pay attention to reports like the new one, but they shouldn’t panic. The best course, since there are so many ways we can be exposed to phthalates, is to avoid them when we can.

Jeff Gearhart, research director for the Ecology Center, agrees. He doesn’t suggest people rip out flooring or wallpaper because of the new report. But if a homeowner is about to redo a floor or wall, it would make sense to check the phthalate content of the home improvement products before buying them.

To help with that, the Ecology Center has set up a web site where consumers can look up a particular product and see whether it contains high levels of phthalates.

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