Experimenting on children

August 6, 1998

By Charlie Cray

Health authorities in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands have recommended a ban on soft PVC toys, such as teething rings and bath toys. The Spanish government requested action by the European Union in March 1998.

PVC, or polyvinyl chloride (also known as vinyl), is a common plastic that frequently contains toxic additives. Despite its well-publicised goal to "protect children's health", the Clinton administration is lobbying aggressively to avert a European ban on PVC toys.

At issue are a family of chemicals called phthalates. Phthalates (phthalic esters or benzenedicarboxylic acid esters) are used primarily as plasticisers, added to PVC to make it soft and elastic. Plasticisers account for more than half the weight of some flexible PVC products.

Since they are not chemically bound to the PVC polymer, phthalates readily leach out of PVC products. Up to 1% of the phthalate content of PVC products is released each year.

As a result of their continuous release during the production, use and disposal of PVC products, phthalates are often described as the "most abundant man-made environmental pollutants".

Although phthalates vary in toxicity, the most widely used phthalates, such as DEHP, have been linked in animal studies to a variety of illnesses, including reproductive damage and damage to the kidneys and liver.

Several agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency, have labelled DEHP a probable human carcinogen. One recent study found a strong correlation between testicular cancer and exposure to PVC in workers who make PVC products. The authors of the study suspect that phthalates may play a role in their findings.

Other studies suggest that phthalates or their metabolites can interact synergistically with other common chemical contaminants, may be slightly oestrogenic (which means they may play a role as endocrine disrupters), can affect blood pressure and heart rate, and may cause asthma when absorbed on airborne particles.

The simple truth about phthalate toxicity is revealed by the warning label on a bottle of DINP, the phthalate most commonly found in toys. The label says, "May cause cancer; harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin, and if swallowed; possible risk of irreversible effects; avoid exposure; and wear suitable protective clothing, gloves, and eye/face protection".

A typical PVC teething ring or bath duck containing about 40% by weight of DINP either has no label or carries a label that reads "non-toxic".

Although no standard method exists for the investigation of release of phthalates from toys, a group of Danish scientists found significant migration of phthalates used in toys.

Soon after, some of Denmark's biggest retailers took precautionary action by pulling a number of chewable PVC toys off their shelves. Since then, a number of retailers in Spain, Sweden Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium have stopped selling PVC teething toys.

No major US retailers have taken similar precautionary action, chiefly because the US Consumer Product Safety Commission has yet to take a position. In the mid-'80s, after the CPSC looked into the leaching of DEHP from teethers, the toy and chemical corporations deflected restrictions on the use of PVC by voluntarily substituting another phthalate for DEHP.

When the EU was asked to restrict PVC toys, it called upon its own Scientific Committee, which investigated and then issued a report in April 1998. The report acknowledged that the EU's assessment "did not take into account that more than one phthalate may occur in children's toys or that there may be additional exposures through food, air and by dermal contact to these phthalates".

Nevertheless, the EU's Scientific Committee found that two common phthalate plasticisers used to make flexible toys (DINP and DEHP) leached from PVC toys at levels of concern.

Phthalates migrate into food from plastic food wraps. A recent survey of US cheeses by Consumer Reports magazine found that phthalates and adipates (another PVC plasticiser) directly migrate from commercial PVC and PVDC plastic wrapping into cheeses.

The June Consumer Reports says, "It's impossible to say whether a tiny serving of plasticizers is risky. If you want to play it safe, buy one of the wraps we found to be free of suspect plasticizers, or buy any polyethylene wrap."

The toy and PVC industries point to the use of PVC in medical devices to suggest that its use in toys and food wraps is safe. Yet phthalates do leach from medical products, often resulting in high exposures to particularly vulnerable individuals, including people with suppressed immune systems, pregnant women and children.

Estimates of exposure levels indicate that haemophiliacs may be exposed to 1 to 2 milligrams per day, and dialysis patients may receive doses as high as 40 mg/day. In one study, seven out of 12 samples of lung tissue, taken at autopsy from patients who had received transfusions of stored blood, contained DEHP at concentrations of 13.4 to 91.5 milligrams per kilogram (dry weight).

Preliminary evidence has linked illnesses to high levels of exposure to phthalates from medical devices. For instance, unusual lung disorders were observed in pre-term infants artificially ventilated with PVC respiratory tubes. Infants in neonatal intensive care units are regularly exposed to DEHP following blood transfusions or respiratory oxygenation.

While high levels of phthalates appear to be leaching from products such as medical devices, toys and packaging (products coming directly in contact with humans or food), these are just a small part of the widespread dispersion of phthalates into the environment. The Swedish EPA estimates, "The greatest spread of phthalates should occur from the outside use of coated fabric and coated plating, and from (automobile) underseal compound. As an estimate, these products are responsible for 90% of phthalate emissions."

Other studies have shown that plasticisers are extracted from PVC flooring when it is washed and from textiles imprinted with PVC. Phthalates are also found in leachate from landfills (released from buried PVC).

Only a total phase-out of flexible PVC products can address the global spread of phthalates. Such a large-scale phase-out is feasible because alternatives exist for nearly every use of PVC. In most cases, the alternatives are cost-effective.

For instance, PVC-free intravenous solution bags are cheaper than PVC bags. The plastics industry is also developing a new generation of high-performance polyolefins (chlorine-free plastics such as polypropylene and polyethylene) which industry analysts contend will soon be cost competitive with PVC. None of these other plastics requires PVC's extensive use of toxic additives.

Since PVC products are common, the immediate goal should be to change the composition of products that people (especially children) contact directly. Banning PVC teething rings would set an important precautionary precedent. In May the government of Sweden proposed a ban on the use of phthalates in all toys for children under age 3.

The US has pressured the EU not to take any action until studies by the Consumer Product Safety Commission are completed. A draft of the CPSC's report (which relies almost exclusively on data provided by phthalate manufacturers) concludes that DINP can be regarded as toxic under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act but additional information is needed on the release of DINP from children's products before the CPSC could recommend action.

[From Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly. Like Green Left Weekly, Rachel's is a non-profit publication which distributes information without charge on the internet and depends on the generosity of readers to survive. If you are able to help keep this valuable resource in existence, send your contribution to Environmental Research Foundation, PO Box 5036, Annapolis, Maryland 21403-7036, USA. In the United States, donations to ERF are tax deductible.]

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