House and Senate lawmakers this week moved toward banning some types of phthalates, a family of chemicals found in many soft plastic children's toys. Here, a look at where phthalates are found and the health concerns they raise.
What are phthalates?
They're chemicals widely used to soften plastics such as vinyl. Manufacturers use hundreds of million of pounds of phthalates each year in products including children's toys.
What kinds of toys are they found in?
They're found in a variety of soft toys, including some rubber ducks, bath books and soft vinyl blocks. However, about a decade ago, companies voluntarily removed phthalates from toys specifically designed to be chewed by children, such as teething rings and rattles.
What are the health concerns?
Phthalates are part of a group of chemicals called "endocrine disruptors." Some of these chemicals act like a hormone in the body; others block the effect of the body's own hormones. Health concerns center on what happens when children chew on toys containing phthalates, and small amounts get into their bodies. Just handling toys isn't a problem. There are more than a dozen phthalates in common use. Studies have shown that some of these phthalates can cause reproductive problems in rodents, but the effect on humans is under much debate.
Why are lawmakers acting now?
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has come under fire in the past couple of years amid a rise in recalls of unsafe products, including imported toys that contained lead paint. Both the House and Senate have bills to revamp the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Senate version called for banning some phthalates in children's toys as part of the commission's overhaul. The House version did not. House and Senate lawmakers, who met to reconcile the two bills, told reporters that they had agreed in principle to adopt the ban. The final bill still needs to go to a vote.
If you're a worried parent, what should you do with toys that may contain phthalates?
That depends on whether your children are mouthing or chewing on those toys. A 2003 study by the CPSC found that most children spent only a few minutes a day mouthing soft plastic toys, and that after age 2 children pretty much stop putting these toys in their mouths at all.
Will toys containing phthalates be recalled?
Some consumer groups want that to happen. But there is no language in the current legislation to suggest a recall. The ban would apply only to toys sold after it becomes law.
Is the ban likely to meet resistance?
Some companies that make the plastic, like Exxon Mobil, have lobbied against the legislation. They say the science suggesting that children are at risk from phthalates is weak. President Bush has said he opposes the ban, but he has not said he would veto the bill.