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Toxic Toys

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That was pretty strong language from two of America's most eminent specialists on the developing endocrine system. But representatives of the chemical and toy industries were also invited to testify. Dr. James Lamb, a former EPA reproductive biologist now working for the Weinberg Group, a consulting firm that lobbies on behalf of the chemical industry, asserted that the effects seen in animals from phthalate exposure were from quantities placed in their feed that far exceeded the amounts children would absorb from playing with or sucking on toys. "Phthalate syndrome," he said, "is a rat syndrome, not a human syndrome."

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Mark Schapiro
Mark Schapiro is an investigative journalist in New York specializing in foreign affairs. In addition to The Nation,...

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Joan Lawrence, vice president for standards and regulatory affairs of the Toy Industry Association (TIA), assured the panel, "If there was solid scientific evidence that these products were harmful, the toy industry would be the first to remove them." Lawrence and Lamb asked, Had scientists established a link between phthalates and sexual malformation beyond a shadow of a doubt? The answer, Gray and Swan conceded, was no. The links between infant phthalate exposure and the symptoms of endocrine disruption are highly suggestive, they said, but have yet to be definitively proven.

None of the advocates of Chan's proposed ban argued that the amount of phthalates to which an infant would be exposed by toys alone would be enough to trigger the spiral of dysfunction prompted by lower levels of testosterone. Nor could they say absolutely that phthalates were the cause of the troubles they were seeing. But removing phthalates from toys, the scientists told the panel, would make for one less contaminant amid multiple exposures to phthalates and other chemicals that are possible contributors to rising endocrine-related troubles, and sexual dysfunction levels, in American men.

That logic, in fact, had led the European Union to ban phthalates eight years before. The very different ways the battle over phthalates has unfolded in Europe and America reflect the vastly different approaches taken by the EU and US governments to protecting citizens from chemical hazards. Here, concern about a product's safety is not enough to justify regulation; irrefutable evidence of harmful effects--a scientific standard that is elusive at best--is required, as is a cost-benefit analysis weighing the "benefits" to society against the "costs" to industry of making the change. The EU, in marked contrast, operates according to the "precautionary principle." As Robert Donkers, who served as the EU's environment counselor in Washington until September, explained to me, "Unlike in the United States, we don't wait until we have 100 percent proof. Rather, if there's fear, scientific suspicions that [a chemical] could cause irreversible damage in the future, we don't want to wait. By the time it's proven, it could be much too late." This was the perspective of Assemblywoman Chan and the advocates of her bill; the risks of doing nothing, they argued, were far greater than the risks of doing something. But that argument would not immediately hold sway in Sacramento. After heavy lobbying by the industry, Chan's bill was defeated by one vote.

In the decade before the EU passed its ban in 1999, numerous studies on phthalates' effects on humans were published in European scientific journals. In the Netherlands, scientists asked men to chew on pieces of plastic children's toys, then tested their saliva and blood to see how easily phthalates pass into the human body; in Denmark scientists concluded that high levels of phthalates in breast milk contributed to lower levels of testosterone in male offspring in their first three months of life; and in Italy, doctors reported that phthalates could contribute to premature births. In 1998 the European Chemical Bureau, an arm of the European Commission that reviews research on chemical toxicity, affirmed that phthalates easily slough off products like plastic toys and recommended tighter exposure standards. Across Europe, parents expressed alarm: if these are really such powerful endocrine disrupters as scientists are suggesting, what are they doing in my son's crib? (Most concern, of course, has been focused on infant boys because of the concern about testosterone levels.)

Responding to mounting public fears, the EU issued a temporary ban in 1999 on the inclusion of six phthalates in children's "toys and teethers intended to be mouthed by children under three years of age." The ban was renewed yearly as scientists were encouraged to get to the heart of these concerns. The World Wildlife Fund took blood samples from members of the European Parliament in 2004 and detected DEHP in all thirty-nine of the MEPs tested. A year later the Parliament voted overwhelmingly to make the temporary ban permanent.

As of January three phthalates determined to be toxic to the reproductive system--DEHP and two others, DBP and BBP--were banned from "all toys and childcare articles." Three others deemed less dangerous--DINP, DIDP, and DNOP--are banned from toys, "if those articles can be put into the mouth by children." The bans are in place until 2010, when they will be put up for review or renewal depending on the results of research. Some EU countries, like Austria and Germany, imposed even tighter restrictions on phthalates, limiting their use in plastic food wrapping.

Many other countries are following the Europeans' lead--including Japan, Norway, Argentina and Mexico, which have banned DEHP and other phthalates from most infant toys, and others, like Canada, which have banned them in teethers and rattles. That leaves the United States as one of the few developed countries with no government limits on phthalates in toys aimed at young children.

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