Congress Bans Some Phthalates in Children's Toys

Bo Ladan, mother of Alexandra, 9, and Nicky, 3, tries not to overreact to the latest "dangerous toy" news. But when she hears that a product could pose safety risks, she acts quickly. She tossed Nicky's Sarge car because of a lead-paint recall and avoided the Thomas the Tank Engine character James for the same reason. And she dumped Nicky's Magna-Man action figure when she found out it was a choking hazard. "We told him it was dangerous," she says. Now she is deciding what to do about the latest scare--toys containing chemicals called phthalates, which make products like plastic rubber ducks soft and flexible but may contribute to hormonal changes in children and reproductive problems. Will Ladan toss everything containing phthalates if she decides they're truly dangerous? "I would," she says.

This week Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which bans lead and several phthalates from children's toys. President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law. "It's a very good start," says Bill Walker, vice president of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. "[But] right now, the system says a chemical is innocent until proven guilty. It would make far more sense to say, 'Let's prove that a product is safe, particularly for children, before we allow it out on the market'." Phthalates are considered hazardous waste and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency as air and water pollutants, he says. "But they are completely unregulated by the FDA in food, cosmetics and food products."

Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association, a trade group representing more than 500 companies, concurs that toys should be proved safe prior to coming to market, which is why his organization supports the new legislation. He adds that the Consumer Product Safety Commission, responsible for regulating the safety of children's toys, hadn't seen phthalates as problematic until now.

Nonetheless, the toy industry's image has been taking a beating recently--last year the CPSC recalled 26 million units of toys, up from 5 million in 2006. "You had the lead paint, you had the detachable batteries. Now you have [phthalates] as well," says Daniel Diermeier, professor of regulation and competitive practice at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "Once you get a string of this type of events, then you get the question of 'Is this industry really capable of protecting the safety of our children?'" Phthalates look like "part of a pattern," he says. "The toy companies really have a credibility problem now, so even if they're right on this specific issue, and I don't know if they are, they have to now worry about customer perception over the safety of their products in general."

Keithley sees a broader systemic problem, arguing in an e-mail that "it is unrealistic to expect the CPSC to be responsible for approving all consumer products prior to marketing." Last year's recalls made it "clear to the toy industry that we needed to strengthen the system for assuring that toys sold in the U.S. conform to toy safety standards."

"Overall, we are very supportive of what Congress has done," he says. "They've worked hard to come out with a solid piece of legislation that enhances toy safety, that provides uniform standards for all toys … It is in all of our interests to be making safe toys." What about phthalates? "We're not toxicologists," he says. "If a study shows there's a problem, we don't want to include it in our toys." Even before the legislation, toymakers were already working to phase out phthalates because of requirements from big-box stores like Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and Target. Hasbro and Mattel have already stopped adding phthalates, says Keithley.

Toy companies, which typically get customers' complaints before the government does, are required to report problems to the CPSC, which can issue a recall. Less than 1 percent of toys sold in the U.S. each year are recalled, according to Keithley; typically, recalls are for defects, such as one earlier this month of remote-controlled helicopters that posed a fire and burn hazard. But they can also be for standards violations, such as parts that are a choking hazard or paint that contains too much lead. "We don't hesitate to remove potentially dangerous products from the marketplace," says Julie Vallese, senior CPSC spokeswoman. "The CPSC's core mission is to protect children and families."

The bill passed by Congress would also double the budget of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, criticized last year for its handling of lead-containing products from China, to $136 million by 2014. And it would require product-compliance testing by independent laboratories. The TIA is preparing a toy-safety certification program, and it will ask the American National Standards Institute to accredit laboratories. The legislation does not specify how often toys should be tested.

Because government is only now getting around to banning phthalates from toys, TIA officials haven't tracked how many toys contain phthalates, nor do they publish a list of phthalate-containing products. "Parents don't know which toys are the worst offenders because there's no labeling," says Sarah Janssen, a senior fellow at the National Resources Defense Council. She notes that the European Union, Argentina, Mexico, Japan and Israel have already put restrictions on the use of phthalates. "The U.S. is really behind," she says.

Meanwhile, this week the NRDC filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C., to force the CPSC to disclose records of its communications with toy manufacturers and chemical companies about phthalates. "In the past, they may have been relying on incomplete or one-sided evidence from the industry," says Aaron Colangelo, senior attorney for the NRDC. He notes that ExxonMobil funded the research that formed the CPSC opinion that phthalates were safe.

The CPSC declined to comment on the lawsuit, but the TIA's Keithley responded in an e-mail that he's unaware of any contact between ExxonMobil and the CPSC. He added that last year his organization commissioned an independent search of the scientific literature on phthalates, which found no studies indicating that the phthalate used in toys could be hazardous.

So far toy-industry officials are not considering allowing parents to exchange old phthalate-containing products for new ones. "We don't anticipate that there would be a recall of the old toys," says Keithley. "We hadn't really thought about that at all."

"Products that contain these ingredients should be labeled very prominently," argues the Environmental Working Group's Walker. The government is singling out six phthalates, three for a permanent ban and three for a temporary ban, pending further study. But Walker thinks all should be nixed. "If you find a class of chemicals in which harm is shown in one variation of the chemical, in most cases I think you're going to find the other variation of the chemical is harmful also," he says.

For now, parents need to sift through conflicting research on their own. "Beyond trying to shop your way out of exposure to toxics, people should realize that they should support efforts at their community, state and national level to address toxic reform overall," says Walker. "Parents are bombarded with too much information about the child poison of the week."