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U.S. Congress Restricts Toxic Plastics Softener in Toys
By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, August 1, 2008 (ENS) - The United States is poised to partially ban a group of chemicals used to soften plastic toys, heeding concerns about possible links to reproductive disorders and other health problems.

The chemicals, known as phthalates, are found in hundreds of household items, including soft plastic toys and other baby products, such as teethers, bath books, and rubber ducks.

Studies have found exposure may cause long-term health effects, including cancer, as the chemicals can interfere with the development of the hormone and reproductive systems.

More than a dozen countries along with the European Union have moved to ban or restrict phthalates.

The U.S. phthalate ban is part of a consumer product safety reform bill that easily passed the Senate Thursday night. The Senate's 89-3 vote came on the heels of Wednesday's 424-1 vote in the House.

Faced with such overwhelming support from Congress, President Bush has indicated he will sign the bill, despite opposition to the phthalate ban and other provisions in the legislation.

Lawmakers crafted the bill in response to recent product recalls of a long list of consumer products, including toys found to contain unsafe levels of lead paint, and growing worries about the ineffectiveness of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, CPSC.

It took House and Senate leaders nearly five months to iron out their differences between competing bills, with the phthalate provision a major sticking point.

Phthlates are used to soften plastics that end up in baby toys such as bath ducks. (Photo by Gaetan Lee)
Language in the Senate bill mirrored California's recent ban on the use of six phthalates in toys and childcare products.

But House Republicans initially balked at the Senate provision and refused to support a ban on all six phthalates. Lawmakers crafted a rare compromise, permanently banning the use of three phthalates in toys and childcare products and temporarily banning the other three pending a 18 month review by CPSC.

"I'm confident that when more science comes in, it will prove that all phthalates are harmful to children and should be permanently banned," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and author of the Senate provision.

The chemical industry expressed dismay at the decision, calling the ban unnecessary and raising concerns about the safety of alternatives to the popular chemicals.

"There is no scientific basis for Congress to restrict phthalates from toys and children's products," said Sharon Kneiss, a vice president with the American Chemistry Council.

A key House Republican in the debate said he changed his mind recently, only after colleagues convinced him to take another look at the issue.

"I was not somebody who was really seriously interested in finding a compromise," said Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican.

Barton said he was unconvinced that phthalates posed much of a risk, but after reviewing the science concluded some action was warranted. "The science is uncertain, but there is growing concern," Barton said Wednesday on the House floor.

Pressure on U.S. lawmakers to take action on phthalates has grown in the past few months, as state governments and retailers have sought to limit children's exposure to the chemicals.

California, Washington and Vermont have all passed legislation to limit phthalate use in children's products and several other states are considering similar restrictions.

Major U.S. retailers - notably both Toys R Us and Wal-Mart - announced plans earlier this year to phase out use of the chemicals in their infant and juvenile products.

By approving the nationwide ban, U.S. lawmakers have "put children ahead of chemical companies," said Feinstein.

Public health advocates hailed approval of the ban and suggested it may signal a shift in U.S. chemicals policy.

"This long-overdue action is not only a victory for parents and children, but an encouraging sign that Congress recognizes that our chemical regulatory system needs reform," said Jane Houlihan, Environmental Working Group's vice president for research.

Environmentalists have long criticized the U.S. chemical regulatory regime as inadequate, arguing that the system essentially allows chemicals on the market before they are adequately tested for possible adverse health effects.

Some Democrats have echoed such sentiments, but lawmakers have failed to generate much interest in chemical policy reform. That could change next year, Feinstein said.

"I believe this legislation is important as the first national effort to begin to exercise a precautionary principle in the use of chemicals as additives to products that affect human health," she said. "It is my belief that chemical additives should not be placed in products that can impact health adversely until they are tested and found to be benign."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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