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Time in partnership with CNN
What's Toxic In Toyland

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San Francisco's ban on toys like these has sparked a sharp debate about
the dangers of plastic contaminants

Sunday, Dec. 3, 2006
By Margot Roosevelt / Los Angeles

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.

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.

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