Sunday, August 3, 2008
The Rubber Duck has New Reason to Float
Congress Moves to Ban Phthalates in Children's Toys.
Wow this is indeed a rare action by Congress! Before I explain the ban, a little about phthalates. Phthalates are a group of oily, colorless chemicals that are found in soft plastics, think vinyl, all vinyl. They are in most commercial products from plastics to shampoo. They are also used in plastic food packaging that leaks into the food being stored. They may also be used in foods as emulsifiers and in the food and cosmetic industry are completely unregulated and not required on the label. All of this despite the fact that they are on the EPA's list of toxic chemicals. They are also in the enteric coating found on many medications. The European Union banned phthalates in 2004 for all uses regarding children under the age of three.
Phthalates are xenoestrogenic, meaning that when these chemicals get into your body they mimic the hormone estrogen. Particularly in males this excess estrogen has a deleterious effect on fertility. Numerous studies with rats have confirmed these findings as has our petri dish that we call reality. For girls the estrogenic compounds can lead to early onset of menses and there are some links to breast cancer. For years people have denied that these chemicals in plastics and cosmetics were having any effect on human beings. Parents in particular, that worried about the health of their children, were concerned that these products were in their children's toys, food products, diapers, nipples on bottles, and personal care products without labeling. These products cannot be readily avoided by a conscious consumer. Phthalates are very available chemicals, they can be transferred simply by placing a toy in your mouth, let alone chewing on it. There is also evidence that phthalates can be absorbed through skin contact.
Phthalates and another chemical BPA Bisphenol-A which has similar estrogenic effect and is found in hard plastics such as Nalgene bottles, baby bottles, plastic tupperware and in the lining of canned goods, have caused much stir among scientists, environmentalists, and doctors, particularly oncologists over the last 10 years. There has been much call to remove or at least label these chemicals on products with little avail until now.
Following a ban in California and Connecticut, all phthalates are to be removed from children's toys in the United States by January 1, 2009. That is pretty quick action! To their credit, big box retailers Walmart, Toys R Us, and Target are pulling phthalate toys ASAP. The problem here is that short of testing every toy on the shelf, how will we KNOW that these imported toys are phthalate free? They weren't labeled before and historically we have not be so great with regulating manufacturing processes overseas especially with China. Well the biggest change with this bill is that it requires that all toys be tested before being sold. The current standard allows toys to be put out on the market and then recalled if they are found to be unsafe.
This brings me to a wider topic.
The Precautionary Principle.
Wikepedia defines the Precautionary Principle as a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.
This means that if you have an idea or product, you must prove it is safe. In the European union the Precautionary Principle is law. In the US however, the burden of proof often falls on the consumer. And establishment of this proof not necessarily through science, but lawsuit. This allows either laziness or corporate greed to infiltrate our market place with unsafe goods. The danger is that new chemicals and products are not labeled so consumers are indeed the petri dish in the lab, chemicals and new products are set out among us to see how we react to them. You should feel empathy for monkeys in labs, because hopefully you just woke up and realized that you are one.
These chemicals are in so many other products, that are also used on babies and the rest of us. We need to take a much wider look at this issue, however this is a great start!