Lawmakers Agree to Ban Toxins in Children's Items
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Congressional negotiators agreed yesterday to a ban on a family of toxins found in children's products, handing a major victory to parents and health experts who have been clamoring for the government to remove harmful chemicals from toys.
The ban, which would take effect in six months, would have significant implications for U.S. consumers, whose homes are filled with hundreds of plastic products designed for children that may be causing dangerous health effects.
The rare action by Congress reflects a growing body of scientific research showing that children ingest the toxins by acts as simple as chewing on a rubber duck. Used for decades in plastic production, the chemicals are now thought to act as hormones and cause reproductive problems, especially in boys.
It also signals an important crack in the chemical industry's ability to fend off federal regulation and suggests that the landscape may be shifting to favor consumers. The movement to ban the toxins accelerated last year when California prohibited their use in children's products.
Earlier this year, the country's largest retailer, Wal-Mart; the biggest toy seller, Toys R Us; and Babies R Us told their suppliers that they will no longer carry products containing the chemicals, known as phthalates, as of Jan. 1, 2009. Toys containing these chemicals, however, will still be on many retail shelves during the holiday season.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said that President Bush opposes the ban but that it is too early to say whether he will veto the measure, which is part of popular legislation to reform the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Among other things, the legislation would ban lead in children's products and would give consumers access to a new database of complaints or accident reports for goods. The measure also allows stiffer fines for violations and enhanced enforcement of consumer safety laws.
Under language finalized yesterday, House and Senate lawmakers agreed to permanently ban three types of phthalates from children's toys and to outlaw three other phthalates from products pending an extensive study of their health effects in children and pregnant women.
Phthalates make plastics softer and more durable and also are added to perfumes, lotions, shampoos and other items. They are so ubiquitous that in one 1999 study, the Food and Drug Administration found traces in all of its 1,000 subjects.
The measure had wide support in the Senate, but it bogged down in the House, where the chemical industry waged a costly battle to defeat it. The campaign was led by Exxon Mobil, which manufacturers diisononyl phthalate, or DINP, the phthalate most frequently found in children's toys. The company spent a chunk of its $22 million lobbying budget in the past 18 months to try to prevent any ban.
Daryl Ditz, senior policy adviser at the Center for International Environmental Law, said industry viewed the ban as a benchmark that might signal a shift in Congress's willingness to toughen restrictions on toxins.
"The great fear is that if a big, established chemical like this can be driven from the market, what's next?" he said.
Said Andy Igrejas of the Pew Charitable Trusts: "The debate over this one set of chemicals is a referendum on a broken system. Congress saw just how screwed up the system is in protecting people from chemicals, especially children."