By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 2, 2008
Samantha Rosenberg eyed the toy plastic cellphone that her 9-month-old daughter has chewed so much, the color is fading. She wondered if the shiny plaything, and others that fill her home, are endangering Addison's health.
Congress this week approved a ban on a family of chemicals widely used in soft plastic toys and other baby products. Health advocates say the compounds, known as phthalates, have been linked to kidney and liver cancer and to reproductive disorders in fetuses and infants, especially boys.
Toymakers and the chemical industry ran an expensive lobbying campaign trying to block the legislation, arguing that phthalates have been used commercially since the 1950s, that they are safe and that the ban is an overreaction.
Rosenberg and other consumers are not sure what to think.
"Am I being neurotic, or is it really not safe?" Rosenberg, a 30-year-old District resident, said about the toy cellphone. "It just gets compounded, because everything is plastic and made in China. You end up worrying about lead paint, plastics, all these things our parents never worried about."
Her questions are echoed by millions of parents who feel overwhelmed by conflicting information and are struggling to strike the right balance. For those discussing toy safety at neighborhood playgrounds, in Internet chat rooms and in the toy aisles of big-box stores, every plastic geegaw has grown suspect.
"In the past six months, I started freaking out about the BPA stuff and plastic toys," said Sherri Bohinc, a 32-year-old mother of two young children who lives in Bethesda, referring to health concerns raised about bisphenol A, another additive used in plastic. "In Target, I'll ask other moms shopping in the same aisles what they think about a toy. I've run into some really paranoid moms, and then I run into people who are like, 'Eh, don't pay attention.' "
Kara Dillon, 29, a mother of two in Surprise, Ariz., threw out baby bottles that contained BPA and replaced them with BPA-free bottles. Now the phthalates ban leaves her wondering whether to toss her children's soft plastic toys, too.
"It's really hard as a mom to know what to do," Dillon said. "As consumers, we're buying what's out there, and you just trust the companies -- especially when it comes to things designed especially for babies -- that they're safe."
The United States is one of the last industrialized nations to outlaw phthalates in children's products. The European Union has banned them since 1999. California was the first state to approve a ban; it takes effect in January. Lawmakers in Washington state and Vermont have followed suit.
The federal ban will take effect six months after President Bush signs it, which he is expected to do in the next several weeks. That means it would not be in place until after the holiday season. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, and Toys R Us, the largest toy seller, have said that by January their shelves will be free of children's products containing BPA and phthalates.
Chemical companies, including ExxonMobil, which manufactures the phthalate most often found in toys, have argued that banning the compounds could force toymakers to use substitutes that pose greater risks. But several alternative chemicals used to make toys for the European market have been found to be safer than phthalates, said Janet Nudelman of the Breast Cancer Fund, which pushed for the U.S. ban. Chemical makers say the alternatives are not as cheap or versatile as phthalates.
It is nearly impossible for consumers to tell whether a children's product contains phthalates because chemical ingredients are not listed. Some toy manufacturers do not even know what is in the plastic they buy from suppliers.
Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, which lobbied in favor of the phthalates ban, suggested that parents get rid of soft, squeezable plastic teethers, rattles and other toys and wait until the ban takes effect before buying replacements.
"Don't keep them around your house for visiting friends with children, or to gather dust in your child's room," she said. "And don't give them as hand-me-downs to relatives or charities."
Zuckerman stressed that she was referring to soft plastic toys, such as plastic books, rubber ducks and teething toys.
She also cautioned that many shampoos and lotions for babies and children contain phthalates. Personal care products are not covered by the ban because the legislation applies to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which does not have jurisdiction over cosmetics, shampoos and lotions. Zuckerman said the next goal for health advocates is to bar phthalates from cosmetics, perfumes and products that children and adults slather on their skin, which readily absorbs the chemicals.
"Everybody in Congress is now well aware that phthalates are ubiquitous and exposure is coming from many different products," Zuckerman said. "And children's toys are probably not the main culprit. Clearly, the next step is personal care products."
Sara LaFountain, a 39-year-old Rockville mother, has four sons and a 7-month-old daughter, Diane. LaFountain got rid of all the plastic toys and bottles that belonged to Diane's brothers, which she had planned to pass down to her only girl.
Instead, Diane gets wooden toys and the occasional plastic giraffe manufactured in Germany that meets European Union safety standards and is made without phthalates. LaFountain also got rid of plastic sippy cups for her small children, replacing them with stainless-steel cups. "I try to make our house as safe as possible," she said.
LaFountain and several other parents interviewed said they felt let down by the government because they do not think it has been safeguarding children's health.
"My oldest is 12, so if this had been banned 10 years ago, he wouldn't have been exposed to as many bad toys," LaFountain said. "I feel upset about that. But you can't go back in time. You can only go on from here."