HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Despite Additive Ban, Some Parents Voice Worry

The Washington Post reports that as a result of its link to kidney and liver cancer and to reproductive disorders in fetuses, Congress recently approved a ban on a family of chemicals known as phthalates that are used in soft plastic toys and other baby products.  The United States is one of the last industrialized nations to outlaw phthalates in children's products.  Lyndsey Layton writes,

PhthalatesSamantha Rosenberg eyed the toy plastic cellphone that her 9-month-old daughter has chewed so much, the color is fading. She wondered if the shiny plaything, and others that fill her home, are endangering Addison's health.

Congress this week approved a ban on a family of chemicals widely used in soft plastic toys and other baby products. Health advocates say the compounds, known as phthalates, have been linked to kidney and liver cancer and to reproductive disorders in fetuses and infants, especially boys.

Toymakers and the chemical industry ran an expensive lobbying campaign trying to block the legislation, arguing that phthalates have been used commercially since the 1950s, that they are safe and that the ban is an overreaction.

Rosenberg and other consumers are not sure what to think.

"Am I being neurotic, or is it really not safe?" Rosenberg, a 30-year-old District resident, said about the toy cellphone. "It just gets compounded, because everything is plastic and made in China. You end up worrying about lead paint, plastics, all these things our parents never worried about."

Her questions are echoed by millions of parents who feel overwhelmed by conflicting information and are struggling to strike the right balance. For those discussing toy safety at neighborhood playgrounds, in Internet chat rooms and in the toy aisles of big-box stores, every plastic geegaw has grown suspect.

"In the past six months, I started freaking out about the BPA stuff and plastic toys," said Sherri Bohinc, a 32-year-old mother of two young children who lives in Bethesda, referring to health concerns raised about bisphenol A, another additive used in plastic. "In Target, I'll ask other moms shopping in the same aisles what they think about a toy. I've run into some really paranoid moms, and then I run into people who are like, 'Eh, don't pay attention.' "

Kara Dillon, 29, a mother of two in Surprise, Ariz., threw out baby bottles that contained BPA and replaced them with BPA-free bottles. Now the phthalates ban leaves her wondering whether to toss her children's soft plastic toys, too.

"It's really hard as a mom to know what to do," Dillon said. "As consumers, we're buying what's out there, and you just trust the companies -- especially when it comes to things designed especially for babies -- that they're safe."

The United States is one of the last industrialized nations to outlaw phthalates in children's products. The European Union has banned them since 1999. California was the first state to approve a ban; it takes effect in January. Lawmakers in Washington state and Vermont have followed suit.

The federal ban will take effect six months after President Bush signs it, which he is expected to do in the next several weeks. That means it would not be in place until after the holiday season. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, and Toys R Us, the largest toy seller, have said that by January their shelves will be free of children's products containing BPA and phthalates.

Chemical companies, including ExxonMobil, which manufactures the phthalate most often found in toys, have argued that banning the compounds could force toymakers to use substitutes that pose greater risks. But several alternative chemicals used to make toys for the European market have been found to be safer than phthalates, said Janet Nudelman of the Breast Cancer Fund, which pushed for the U.S. ban. Chemical makers say the alternatives are not as cheap or versatile as phthalates.

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