Phthalates? Phtooey!

Harvey Karp is a pediatrician and author of "The Happiest Baby on the Block." Rachel Gibson is a staff attorney with Environment California, a supporter of AB 1108.

Rubber duckies are great -- unless they’re the kind that are loaded with chemicals called phthalates. These softening agents can make up 50% of the plastic in toys children love to stick in their mouths. The trouble is, these unhealthy chemicals don’t stay in the toy’s plastic. They get chewed and sucked right out, just like the flavoring of bubble gum.

The vast majority of chemicals used in consumer products have never been tested for their effects on human health. In criminal courts, suspects are innocent until proved guilty. When it comes to protecting our children, a reverse standard should apply: Chemicals should be guilty until proved innocent. And when it comes to phthalates, innocence is far from established.

Phthalates are a family of chemicals that are put into plastic products -- including toys, teething rings and rattles -- to make them soft and pliable. Yet phthalates pose a particular health risk to infants and young children. Kids’ curiosity makes them put everything in their mouths -- virtually guaranteeing exposure to phthalates -- but their bodies are less able to detoxify themselves. And as their organs develop, they pass through windows of vulnerability when even tiny doses of these toxic chemicals can have extra-harmful effects.

One scientific study after another has shown that minuscule doses of phthalates -- doses that previously were assumed safe -- can disrupt the hormonal balance of developing children, potentially causing serious, lifelong effects. Researchers have linked phthalates to early puberty in girls, reproductive problems, abnormalities of the penis, impaired sperm, liver and thyroid damage and testicular cancer. In fact, California has put several types of phthalates on its list of reproductive and developmental toxicants that, under certain conditions, require consumer warnings.

The timing of the exposure to these hormone-twisting chemicals during early stages of development matters as much, if not more, than the dose. Unfortunately, a 2005 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed nearly all children already have unhealthy levels of phthalates in their bodies.


The good news is that there are safe, economical replacements for phthalates. The European Union and 14 other countries have banned or restricted the use of phthalates in children’s products. In the U.S., several leading toy manufacturers also have restricted their use of phthalates over the last few years as a result of research confirming health concerns. However, the vast majority of children’s products available in the U.S. still contain phthalates.

With available alternatives, why are toy companies unnecessarily exposing children to toxic chemicals? Because current law allows them to.

Now, after a decade of worrisome research and foot-dragging by the chemical industry, California is poised to give its kids the same protection as those living abroad. Earlier this month, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 1108, which would ban six phthalates from children’s toys, teethers and feeding products. It is a modest but important step to protect our children. The bill is on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk, and all he needs to do to protect kids is to sign it.

Chemical industry lobbyists are putting enormous pressure on the governor to veto this bill. But ask any parent and their perspective is clear: If a chemical is toxic, it simply doesn’t belong in a teether or toy. Period.

As California goes, so goes the nation. In 2003, the state banned two toxic flame retardants known to cause developmental and learning disabilities. The primary manufacturer of those chemicals immediately announced it would stop producing and selling them nationwide. Likewise, toy makers say that if AB 1108 becomes law, they will reformulate all the toys they sell in this country.

If the governor wants California to lead the way in environmental health policies, he should sign AB 1108. We must stop playing games with our children’s health.