Not a child's toy

Are they safe or are they toxic? The debate continues as the US tries to oppose Europe's efforts to ban toys containing PVC

Published: Friday 31 July 1998

the Clinton administration, supporting the American toy-manufacturing giant Mattel Inc and several other toy companies, is lobbying against European efforts to ban controversial chemical compounds from teething rings and other toys for children.

With the European Union (eu) nearing a decision on whether to prohibit the sale of toys made with polyvinyl chloride (pvc), the Commerce Department has instructed us diplomats to try and turn around several such bans already in effect.

The toy companies are concerned that the bans could affect the sale of their products within the us apart from the immediate impacts on sales in Europe.

A decision by the 15-nation eu could come as early as next week. At issue are compounds known as phthalates. These are softening agents that provide a spongy, chewy feel when added to plastics. These also help plastics absorb the reds and yellows and other bright colours that most children find attractive.

Among the compounds that would be banned is one that has been voluntarily left out of all us products for 13 years. Other compounds being targeted by the eu , however, are key components of toys and other plastic products made and sold in the United States.

A Danish study has suggested that some phthalates, which are used not only in toys but strong plastic bags that contain intravenously-delivered medications and even blood, may cause cancer disrupt endocrine function or weaken the immune systems. Other studies have raised similar concerns and suggested that these may even cause liver and kidney damage and disruption in reproduction. But the studies were conducted only on animals and scientists are not quite sure as to how the chemicals will affect humans.

David Miller, president of the Toy Manufacturers of America, which represents the makers and importers of 85 per cent of the toys sold in the us -- 20 per cent of which are made of vinyl -- said no study has replicated the Danish study. "The science is not in that direction," he said. "The science is on our side."

However, enough questions have been raised about one chemical, diethylhexylphthalate, that manufacturers voluntarily took it out of the formula for the plastics used in children's toys in 1985, substituting another phthalate.

Charels Ludolph, a deputy assistant secretary of commerce responsible for European affairs, said the us position is that "decisions on a threat to health should be based on objective, scientific evidence." He said the administration wanted the eu to delay any decision until they study the report that the us Consumer Product Commission is expected to complete in July on phthalate.

But Jeff Wise, policy director of the National Environment Trust, a public education organisation, said," There is always more science you can do. There is enough science to indicate there is concern."

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