Out of the Mouths of Babes

In 1997, U.S. Vice President Al Gore announced a new Executive Order to "reduce environmental health and safety risks to children." The order explicitly calls for mitigation of "risks to health or to safety that are attributable to products or substances that the child is likely to come in contact with or ingest."

A few blocks away from the White House, the Clinton Administration's Commerce Department  has worked in direct opposition to this entreaty. In recent months, the Commerce Department has lobbied on behalf of U.S. toy and chemical manufacturers against proposed new EU restrictions which would prevent children's exposure to toxic chemicals released by PVC (polyvinyl chloride) toys.

The EU took up the issue after health authorities in a number of European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, called for withdrawing soft vinyl toys, such as teething rings and bath toys, from the market. In March, Spain requested action by the European Union.

At issue are a family of chemicals called phthalates (pronounced "thalates"). Phthalates are used primarily as plasticizer additives to give vinyl products softness and elasticity.  Plasticizers comprise over half of the weight of some flexible vinyl products. Ninety-five percent of phthalates are used in the production of  vinyl products.

Since they are not chemically bound to the PVC polymer itself, phthalates readily leach out of vinyl products. Up to 1 percent of the phthalate content of vinyl articles may be released during use each year. 

Although phthalates vary in toxicity, the most widely-used phthalates (e.g. DEHP or di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate) have been linked in animal studies to a variety of illnesses, including reproductive damage and damage to the kidneys and liver.

Several agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have labeled DEHP a probable human carcinogen. Other studies suggest that phthalates or their metabolites can interact synergistically with other common chemical contaminants, may be slightly estrogenic meaning they may have a role in endocrine disruption), affect blood pressure and heart rate and are potentially linked to asthma when absorbed on airborne particles.

In April 1997, a group of Danish scientists reported significant migration of phthalates used in toys. Soon after, some of Denmark's biggest retailers took precautionary action by pulling a number of PVC toys designed to be chewed off the shelves.

Since then, a number of retailers in Spain, Sweden, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium have removed vinyl teething toys from sale.

In May 1998, the Swedish government proposed a legal ban on softeners in toys for children under three, following Austria and Denmark. Several German toy companies have now replaced their PVC toys with alternatives, labeling them clearly as "PVC-free." Others, like Lego, are eliminating soft PVC toys from their product line entirely. Recently, a large Argentinian toy producer, Babelito, announced it has withdrawn soft PVC products from sale and production.

No major U.S. retailer has taken similar precautionary action, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is responsible for toy safety regulations, has yet to take action. U.S. toy makers did voluntarily substitute another phthalate for DEHP in the mid 1980s, after the CPSC looked into the leaching of DEHP from teethers.

In June, EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner Emma Bonino proposed that the European Union initiate an emergency ban on PVC toys marketed to be put in a child's mouth and containing phthalates DINP or DEHP. Almost immediately, the Commission rejected Bonino's proposal, instead suggesting that "migration limits" be established for phthalates in soft PVC toys.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suggesting that the U.S. government lobbied at the behest of toymaker Mattel and chemical manufacturer Exxon may help explain the European Commission's rejection of the proposed emergency ban.

A March 8 letter from Fermin Cuza, Mattel's senior vice president, to U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley, states, "I am writing to express Mattel's appreciation for the invaluable work being done by the European country desk of Commerce's Market Access and Compliance office." Cuza lauded Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Europe Charles Ludolph for having been "critical in helping the US toy industry defend against recent EU initiatives to ban the
use of PVC in toys" and for "aggressively fighting these restrictive European actions."

Similarly, a cable from Vernon Weaver, the U.S. Representative to the EU in Brussels, sent to Washington and U.S. missions in Europe extends "heartfelt thanks to all EU posts ... in making contact with member state representatives of the EU Product Safety Emergencies Committee. We are told by Exxon Chemical Europe Inc. that the input was very effective and the weigh-in was invaluable."

-- Charlie Cray is a Greenpeace toxics campaigner