Health authorities in several European countries, including 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 (EU) in March, 1998. PVC, or polyvinyl chloride (also known as vinyl), is a common plastic that frequently contains toxic additives. Despite its well-publicized 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 (pronounced "thalates"). Phthalates (phthalic esters or benzenedicarboxylic acid esters) are used primarily as plasticizers added to PVC to make it soft and elastic. Plasticizers account for more than half the weight of some flexible PVC products. About 95% of phthalates are used in PVC.
Since they are not chemically bound to the PVC polymer itself, 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." (See REHW #438).
Although phthalates vary in toxicity, the most widely-used phthalates such as DEHP [di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate] have been linked in animal studies to a variety of illnesses, including reproductive damage and damage to the kidneys and liver. Several agencies, including U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], have labeled 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 estrogenic (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 on a bottle of DINP sold to an experimental laboratory 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." On the other hand, 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 the shelves. Since then, a number of retailers in Spain, Sweden Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium have stopped selling PVC teething toys.
No major U.S. retailers have taken similar precautionary action, chiefly because the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which is responsible for toy safety regulations, 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.
Phthalates migrate into food from plastic food wraps. A recent survey of U.S. cheeses by CONSUMER REPORTS magazine found that phthalates and adipates (another PVC plasticizer) directly migrate from commercial PVC and PVDC plastic wrapping into cheeses. "In the cheeses [Consumer Reports] found:
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." A sensible recommendation that would help reduce exposure.
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 that "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 plasticizers 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).
from Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly