Toy Buyer Beware

by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD.
Appeared in:
  • Orange Coast Voice, Dec. 16, 2009
  • Southern Sierran, Dec. 2009
  • Fullerton Observer as A Few Less Toxins in Toyland, Nov. 2009, page 9
  • San Fernando Valley Sierra Club newsletter, Nov. 2009
This is an updated version of Fewer Toxins in Toyland that incorporates recently stalled legislation in California aimed at protecting young children from risky chemicals.
California has moved to restrict phthalate plasticizers in childcare items. Photo from

California has moved to restrict phthalate plasticizers in childcare items. Photo from

This holiday season, parents shopping for children can rest just a tad easier because of a recent California law restricting the use of toxic phthalate plasticizers in toys and childcare products made of plastic. Additional legislative efforts to rein in two other classes of chemicals suspected of posing health risks to youngsters, bisphenol A and halogenated flame retardants, emerged this year in the State Senate, although neither met with success.

But, perhaps the best news is that California has enacted laws establishing a groundbreaking precautionary approach to the oversight of chemicals that should soon make such painstaking chemical-by-chemical regulation a thing of the past.

Phthalate Plasticizers

Articles made of polyvinyl chloride plastic (#3 PVC) require addition of chemical “plasticizers” to make them soft and pliable. Effective January 2009 in California, the allowable level in children’s toys and childcare products of six phthalate plasticizers, the industry favorites for decades, has been strictly limited because of potentially harmful effects on the developing reproductive system (AB1108, Ma).

Teethers, soft plastic books and rubber duckies are examples of the items affected. Virtually all Americans have measureable levels of phthalates in their bodies, and youngsters’ habit of exploring their environment orally is thought to be a major route of exposure.

The law specifically prohibits substituting phthalate plasticizers with carcinogenic or endocrine disrupting substances.

Bisphenol A

The chemical bisphenol A (BPA) was first synthesized a century ago as an estrogen hormone mimic but employed instead to make polycarbonate plastics upon discovery that it could be polymerized into a shatter-proof material. It is widely used in plastic baby bottles and is also a key component of the resin that lines food cans and jar lids, including infant formula.

BPA is routinely found in human tissues, and children have the highest levels. The main route of exposure seems to be leaching from food or drink containers into the contents. Over 200 scientific studies connect BPA to a diversity of problems like early puberty, miscarriage, breast and prostate cancer, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cardiac arrhythmias.

A California bill proposed this year would have instituted a statewide ban on the manufacture or sale of containers (bottles, sippy cups, jars, cans) or foods & liquids with more than a trace of BPA (>0.1 ppb) when the item is designed for children aged three years and under (SB797, Pavley). This bill took on added importance when a state Environmental Protection Agency panel decided on July 15, 2009 not to require warning labels on BPA-containing products under California’s Proposition 65 which applies to carcinogens and reproductive toxins.

The State Senate approved the legislation in June but it was voted down in the Assembly in the final hours of this year’s legislative session following intense lobbying by manufacturers of both BPA and infant formula. Senator Pavley has vowed to revive the issue next year.

Connecticut and Minnesota have already enacted restrictions on BPA in children’s drinkware or foodware, and Massachusetts public health officials issued a warning in August to parents of young children.

Flame Retardants

Another State Senate bill proposed to remove “an obsolete state regulation requiring juvenile bedding and mattress products to be treated with highly toxic flame retardants….” (SB772, Leno).

California law requires that seating furniture and bedding materials meet strict flammability standards typically met by treatment with halogenated flame retardants, a family of chemicals linked to a host of health risks including endocrine disruption, neurological and developmental impairments, cancer, birth defects and learning disabilities. In 2008, California banned two of the halogenated formulations, but others remain in widespread usage. Avenues of exposure in infants include direct skin or oral contact.

By specifically exempting strollers, infant carriers, bassinets and nursing pillows from the state flammability regulation, the proposed legislation aimed to minimize infant and toddler exposure to flame retardants at a critical period in development. All exempted articles would carry a permanent label to that effect.

Unfortunately, lack of support in the Assembly Appropriations Committee doomed the bill in the current legislative session although it will be reconsidered next year.

Green Chemistry Initiative

Schwarzenegger signed two bills in 2008 crafted to completely revamp how California approaches protecting humans and the environment from hazardous chemicals.

Under previous law, California’s governmental agencies lacked the authority to ensure that chemicals used in consumer products are safe, even when science identifies risks to humans or wildlife. As a result, the California legislature has been forced to decide, on a chemical-by-chemical basis, if a marketed substance with a history of toxicity should be restricted.

Under the new Green Chemistry initiative’s sweeping reforms, the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) is mandated to identify risky chemicals in consumer products and take regulatory actions, including bans, restrictions and warning labels. Whether consumers will have available any mechanisms to readily identify the chemical constituents of specific products, such as through obligatory product labels, remains undecided but is an “aspiration” of the DTSC, according to spokesperson Rick Bausch.

A companion law requires creation of a web-based Toxics Information Clearinghouse to enable consumers to track the safety of chemicals used in everyday products. Together, this duo lays the framework for the most comprehensive regulation of its kind in the nation, although neither program is slated to take effect before January 2011.

In the meanwhile, whether California’s infants and toddlers will be protected specifically against BPA or flame retardants is still being debated, and so far the chemical industry and other powerful opponents of restricting these substances are winning.

One Response to Toy Buyer Beware

  1. […] Toxins in Toyland by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD Also see an update to this article, Too Fewer Toxins in Toyland, that incorporates stalled legislation in California aimed at protecting […]

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