They line the nursery section 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.