San Francisco Implements 'Toxic Toys' Law

San Francisco officials are going forward with a local law banning the use of certain chemicals in children's toys. The city is being sued over the law, but says it plans to go forward with it.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Kids and media, now kids and toys. San Francisco wants to ban certain chemicals that are in some children's toys and also in some baby bottles. The law has been on a hold for more than a month. Toy makers and chemical manufacturers and local retailers are suing the city over this law because they say chemical regulation is for the federal government. Despite the lawsuit, San Francisco officials have revised the law and they're saying they're going to go ahead with it. From member station KQED, Sarah Varney reports.

SARAH VARNEY: Jared Blumenfeld, overseer of San Francisco's Department of the Environment, has lost his faith in federal regulators.

Mr. JARED BLUMENFELD (Director, Department of Environment, San Francisco): The federal government, left to their own devises on this issue, has not take sufficient action to protect our health. So we wish we didn't have to act, but we still have a duty to protect our residents, and that's what we're trying to do.

VARNEY: Under the revised ordinance introduced this week, six chemicals would be severely restricted. Called phthalates, the chemicals are widely used in plastic pacifiers, vinyl waterproof baby books, and an avalanche of brightly colored beeping, squeaking toys. At least three of those chemicals are already on a state list of chemicals deemed by state scientific panels to cause cancer or birth defects.

Environment Director Blumenfeld says San Francisco modeled this law after the European Union, which banned the same six phthalates in kids products in 1999.

Mr. BLUMENFELD: There's 320 million people in the European Union who are now protected. U.S. companies are making products that they sell to Europe that don't have phthalates. But cynically, to save costs, continue to sell those products to us.

VARNEY: But toy manufacturers contend the European Union, and now San Francisco, are making decisions based on faulty science. Rick Locker of the Toy Industry Association says the chemicals used in children's products have been thoroughly vetted.

Mr. RICK LOCKER (President, Toy Industry Association): Most of these studies found that the exposure levels from toys were at remarkably low levels, at levels that would not even, you know, when accumulated over a lifetime, would not present a health hazard. And we didn't make those determinations.

VARNEY: According to a U.S. EPA spokeswoman, the agency will soon be updating what's considered safe levels for some phthalates. In some cases, those standards are 16 years old. And a recent study showed for the first time that developmental effects that were once found only in lab rats are now being found in baby boys.

Ms. MARY BROON(ph) (Mother): We're at Jeffrey's Toys in downtown San Francisco.

VARNEY: Mary Broon has entered the toy store and makes a beeline for the toddler aisle to look for teething toys. Her two-and-a-year-old daughter is getting her molars. Nearly all the teethers are made in China and few list their ingredients. Except this star-shaped one.

Ms. BROON: This one I found over here made by a company. This does contain a plastic ring, and on the back it does specify that no PVC or phthalates were used in the manufacture of this product.

VARNEY: But Broon says even these labels can't be trusted.

Ms. BROON: Regulation of these products is really crucial because it's - yes, it's comforting to see that this particular product says it doesn't contain phthalates, but without a chemistry set right here in the lab, there's really no way to be sure.

VARNEY: Richard Woo, the owner of City Kids, one of San Francisco's largest baby stores, is suing to stop San Francisco's new law. He takes exception with the move toward greater regulation.

Mr. RICHARD WOO (Owner, City Kids): And I think instead of these chemicals being regulated, our regulatory agencies, I think the consumer should make up their mind whether or not they want to use it, much like cigarettes or alcohol.

VARNEY: If San Francisco's phthalate ban passes, which is widely expected, the city's health and environment departments would spend a year and a half coming up with a list of products that contain more than 0.1 percent of the chemicals. Retailers would not be allowed to sell any product on that list and would be fined if they violate the law.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney in San Francisco.

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