Time  [Printer-friendly version]
December 3, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: San Francisco's ban on toxic toys --
including such classics as the rubber ducky -- highlights the lurking
danger of plastic contaminants.]

By Margot Roosevelt

They line the nursery section of children's toy stores like brightly
colored candies: rubber duckies for bathtime, chewable rings for
teething, soft-covered books for pawing and mouthing. Parents shopping
for their babies can be forgiven if they assume that everything on
those shelves is 100% child safe. So why did the city of San Francisco
issue a ban last week on the sale of certain plastic toys aimed at
children under 3? And why are activists warning holiday shoppers in
the most alarming terms against buying them?

"Sucking on some of these teethers and toys," says Rachel Gibson of
Environment California, a nonprofit, "is like sucking on a toxic
lollipop." At issue are contaminants in plastics used to make the
toys. Environmentalists have long argued that some of these chemicals
can leach out and harm children, pointing to animal studies that link
the substances to birth defects, cancer and developmental
abnormalities. Those warnings are hotly disputed by the chemical
industry and toy manufacturers, which cite stacks of scientific
studies that have found the plastics to be safe at federally approved
levels. But the issue has gained traction on the strength of new
evidence from independent and university-sponsored studies. The
European Union has banned some chemicals in toys since 1999, and now
half a dozen state legislatures are considering similar laws.

The controversy centers on a family of chemicals called phthalates
(pronounced "thalates"), which are used to soften vinyl, and on
bisphenol A (BPA), a substance used to make clear and shatterproof
plastic. Most are known to be so-called endocrine disrupters, capable
of interfering with the hormones that regulate masculinity and
femininity. Several hundred animal studies have linked phthalates to
prostate and breast cancers, abnormal genitals, early puberty onset
and obesity. More recently, they've been shown to affect humans as
well. In a paper published last year in the journal Environmental
Health Perspectives, scientists from the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention and several universities found that boys born to
mothers with higher phthalate levels are far more likely to show
altered genital development, linked to incomplete testicular descent.
Harvard School of Public Health studies report that men with higher
phthalate levels have lower sperm counts and damaged sperm dna.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents manufacturers
such as ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical, says the crackdowns on toys are
not justified by the science. "The E.U. aims to ban products that show
adverse effect at very high doses in rats," says the acc's Marian
Stanley. "Many essential products are made from starting materials
that can be quite toxic at high doses. This does not mean that the
final consumer products are toxic." As for recent phthalate studies on
humans, she says, they are either preliminary or "overhyped."
Meanwhile, toy companies are relying on a 2001 review by a Consumer
Product Safety Commission panel that found "no demonstrated health
risk" in toys made with dinp -- one of the phthalates used in vinyl.
Critics fault the panel for failing to examine the effect of dinp when
combined with other phthalates.

The focus on bpa is new. Its use is widespread -- it's found in dental
sealants and the epoxy linings on food cans as well as in baby
bottles. Studies in animals over the past five years have found that
the substance, which mimics the human hormone estrogen, alters brain
structure and chemistry as well as the immune system and reproductive
organs. Some of these effects show up at extremely low doses, in some
cases 2,000 times below the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
safety guideline, according to Frederick vom Saal, a University of
Missouri endocrinologist. Chemical companies say the findings are not
applicable to humans, but the federal National Toxicology Program has
launched a reassessment of the safety standard. "The literature around
bpa is very controversial," warns epa scientist Earl Gray. "Next
year's review should clarify things."

The problem for retailers -- and parents -- is that the U.S. does not
require manufacturers to disclose ingredients in most consumer
products. How can you tell which contain the contaminants when
chemical companies guard the information as proprietary? "Stores have
products stacked to the ceiling for the holidays," says Daniel
Grossman, ceo of San Francisco's Wild Planet Toys. "They have no idea
what has phthalates and what doesn't."

They may soon find out. The San Francisco Chronicle recently had 16
toys tested in a private lab. One rubber ducky contained the
phthalate dehp at 13 times San Francisco's allowed level. A teether
contained another phthalate at five times the limit. Meanwhile, a
rattle, two waterproof books and a doll contained bpa, which is
prohibited by the city at any level. Although the products comply with
U.S. law, some toymakers, including Goldberger Doll, are cutting out
phthalates. Richard Woo, owner of a local store called Citikids,
estimates that he might have to pull a third of his items off the
shelves. Next month manufacturers will go to court to block the new
law. Whatever the ruling, parents will be left wondering how safe
their children's toys really are.

Copyright 2006 Time Inc.