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Lawmakers Agree to Ban Toxins in Children's Items

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who sponsored the measure, said yesterday that the action is a first step toward moving the United States closer to the European model, where industry must prove the safety of a chemical before it is allowed on the market.

"Chemical additives should not be placed in products that can impact health adversely until they are tested and found to be benign," she said.

U.S. companies manufacture $1.4 billion worth of phthalates annually, and less than 5 percent of that is used in children's products, according to the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical makers.

Sharon Kneiss, a vice president at the trade group, said Congress acted prematurely. "There is no scientific basis for Congress to restrict phthalates from toys and children's products. With over 50 years of research, phthalates are among the most thoroughly studied products in the world, and have been reviewed by multiple regulatory bodies in the U.S. and Europe," she said.

Exxon Mobil contended that banning phthalates may inadvertently expose children to greater risks, because manufacturers will be forced to use substitute chemicals that may be even more hazardous.

"What's at stake is, in fact, children's safety," said Elissa Sterry, a vice president at Exxon Mobil Chemicals. "If DINP is replaced by alternative products, that's a potential risk to children."

The industry's position was repeated by Keith Hennessey, director of Bush's Economic Policy Council, who wrote to the Senate saying that a ban could hurt children.

"Banning a product before a conclusive, scientific determination is reached is short-sighted and may result in the introduction of unregulated substitute chemicals that harm children's health," he wrote.

Most research on phthalates has been performed on rodents, and chemical makers say there is no evidence that humans are similarly affected. They also contend that children are exposed to phthalate levels far below the doses administered to laboratory rats.

But the first study involving human babies in 2005 raised questions about those arguments. Federally funded research by the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester Medical School found that male babies born to women with high levels of phthalates in their blood exhibited changes related to low sperm count, undescended testicles and other reproductive problems. In that study, the infants were exposed to phthalate levels way below the doses administered in rat experiments. Other studies have connected some phthalates to liver and kidney cancer.

Health experts argue that dangers may be more significant from cumulative exposure, because phthalates surround babies not only in toys and products but also in breast milk if the mother has been exposed to the chemicals.

The European Union banned six phthalates from children's products in 1999 and more than a dozen other countries have done the same.

California's ban has been followed by legislation in Washington state and Vermont.

Staff writer Annys Shin contributed to this report.

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