Correction to This Article
This column incorrectly said that Target has made a commitment to removing PVC from 88 percent of store-branded products by next spring and reducing PVC packaging. Target has said only that it expects its shower curtains to be 88 percent PVC-free by spring.

Hazardous or Not, Vinyl Shares Lead's Taint

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Just as consumers have crossed off their holiday shopping lists toys tainted with lead paint, another child-safety issue may become a season spoiler.

Consumer and environmental groups say the alarm raised over lead is helping them in their campaign to turn public attention to vinyl, a possible source of exposure to chemical additives in consumer goods and toys, most of them imported.

For more than a decade, such groups as Greenpeace, the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, Calif., and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church have been hounding regulators, manufacturers and retailers about taking polyvinyl chloride, a ubiquitous plastic commonly known as PVC, out of products.

The plastic, versatile and cheap, has been used for decades in soft toys, building materials, medical products and countless other consumer goods.

In some cases, lead, cadmium or other heavy metals are added to prevent deterioration. To give the plastic flexibility, phthalates, chemical additives, also go into the mix.

"Lead is not the only dangerous chemical found in toys," said Rick Hind, legislative director for the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign. "The widespread use of vinyl plastic in toys exposes millions of children to additional toxic metals and additives such as phthalates." Greenpeace is a worldwide group of environmental activists headquartered in Amsterdam.

Public interest groups want regulators and retailers to eliminate products that contain metals and toxic chemicals. They point to a 2005 ban imposed by the European Union on the use of phthalates in toys and children's products.

Though much of the science is still being debated, activists say PVC causes developmental delays in children, and phthalates can cause cancer and problems with sexual development.

Frederick Locker, general counsel for the Toy Industry Association in New York, said misinformation and confusion about lead and toys have erroneously implicated PVC. He said many toys made with PVC are free of phthalates and lead.

However, with the public now paying close attention to the 25 million toys that have been recalled this year, proponents of eliminating PVC have gotten traction. They've also taken advantage of criticism of the Consumer Product Safety Commis sion and its lax oversight of toy safety to become something of a shadow regulator.

The groups have used a combination of grass-roots lobbying, negotiations, marketing pressure and legal threats to get such companies as Wal-Mart, Target and Apple to see the downside of vinyl in bibs, lunchboxes, backpacks and electronics.

They have been helped along by the recent passage in California of the first state law that bans the use of chemical plastic softeners in products for children under age 3.

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