THE DETAILS: Over the summer, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act by an overwhelming majority; President Bush signed the law banning the sale of toys containing lead or any of six plastic-softening chemicals known as phthalates. The ban was supposed to go into effect by Feb. 10, 2009, but the agency implementing the ban—the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)—is allowing stores to stockpile phthalate-tainted toys up until the ban date. Stores can then sell them long after the ban date, until they run out. Phthalates are believed to be endocrine disruptors, and have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems and, studies indicate, an increased risk for asthma and allergies, birth defects, kidney and liver damage, obesity, and damaged sperm in men. The Natural Resources Defense Council has filed a lawsuit against the CPSC, claiming the agency isn’t enforcing the Congress-backed ban.
The decision is an appropriate implementation of the law, says Julie Vallese, spokeswoman for CPSC. “The very specific language used on phthalates makes it allowable for those products to be sold after the date, but not manufactured after the date,” she explains. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) says the CPSC is not implementing the law with the intent of Congress, and is calling on the agency to make sure phthalate-containing toys are off shelves by Feb. 10, according to a statement from her office.
WHAT IT MEANS: Buyer beware. The state of California banned the chemicals for use in toys last year, but until all of these phthalate-containing toys are removed from shelves across the country, there’s no way to completely avoid them. Wal-Mart, Toys“R”Us, and Babies“R”Us have announced that they won’t sell children’s products containing the chemicals as of January 1, 2009. But the toys are still on store shelves during this holiday season.
Follow these tips to avoid phthalates in toys and other products:
• Avoid vinyl. Stay away from toys and products made from PVC or vinyl; they can leach harmful phthalates. Some, but not all, vinyl products are marked with a “3” inside a triangle somewhere on the exterior. There’s no requirement for manufacturers to list phthalates on the label, though, so avoid unmarked plastic. One phthalate-free alternative is ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA).
• Call the toymaker. Call the manufacturer’s customer service number and ask if their products contain phthalates. If they don’t know, don’t buy the product.
• Know where phthalates lurk. Phthalates aren’t just in toys. They’re used in many cosmetics, hairsprays, detergents, air fresheners, vinyl flooring and shower curtains, and many personal care products. They’re often used to disperse scents, and can be disguised by a product’s “parfum” or “fragrance” ingredient listing. Choose products and cleaners that are fragrance-free or contain pure essential oils, or make your own cleaners out of white vinegar and water. And hang a cotton or hemp shower curtain instead of a smelly vinyl one.
• Reheat wisely. When you heat or store food in plastic containers, phthalates can leach into your food. Glad Cling Wrap, Ziploc containers, and Tupperware bowls are phthalate-free. But to stay clear of other chemicals present in plastic, we recommend using glass or ceramic containers.