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SARAH VARNEY: I'm Sarah Varney of member station KQED in San Francisco. Manufacturers now have to substitute other chemicals for the phthalates they used to use in children's products, everything from baby rattles, rubber duckies and other plastic doodads, toys that often are important members of the family. Certainly they are at my house.

This is Polly the octopus...

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUEAKING)

VARNEY: ...Filipe the purple whale...

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUEAKING)

VARNEY: ...Guadalupe the tigerfish...

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUEAKING)

VARNEY: ...Boris the blowfish...

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUEAKING)

VARNEY: ...and Tessa the turtle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUEAKING)

VARNEY: These are my son's favorite bathtub toys.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VARNEY: And they're made without phthalates. At least that's what the label said.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER DRIPPING AND CHILD COOING)

VARNEY: But the label didn't say what's in them instead. Here in California, regulators have banned harmful chemicals in the past, and in a few cases manufacturers used substitutes that were found to be just as dangerous or the health effects weren't known. Was Filipe the purple whale made from yet another one of these regrettable substitutes?

To begin my search, I head to Berkley, where scientists are doing unspeakable things to SpongeBob SquarePants and other innocent creatures.

BRUCE LABELLE: Do you have a (unintelligible)?

VARNEY: At the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, lab director Bruce LaBelle and his team of chemists are grinding up toys in what looks like an industrial coffee grinder.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRINDER)

VARNEY: Dr. LaBelle is holding chewed up plastic bits of SpongeBob SquarePants. It's a newer version that the toy maker Munchkin told me no longer contained phthalates. And sure enough, Dr. LaBelle's tests confirm that.

But now can we tell what the company, Munchkin in this case, replaced the phthalate with?

LABELLE: We have no easy way of telling what they replaced the phthalate that was banned with. We really need information from the company or some other source.

VARNEY: Under U.S. law, companies aren't required to disclose the chemicals in their products or alert any government agency when they swap out a banned chemical, like phthalates, for a new one. Neither the federal ban nor the California ban spells out which substitutes manufacturers can use to replace phthalates. California's law does require manufacturers use substitutes that aren't known to cause cancer or reproductive hard. But that standard doesn't bar substitutes that might produce other health effects.

Stephen Dizio is a top toxicologist at California's Environmental Protection Agency.

STEPHEN DIZIO: There are 80,000 chemicals in commerce. We know something about toxicity of about 400 of them. That really means that things come and go in the market place that you have no idea what will happen.

VARNEY: When I called the U.S. E.P.A., they told me they're not evaluating any of these phthalate substitutes. Under U.S. law, the E.P.A. doesn't routinely assess the risks of chemicals, new or old. The agency does keep a short list of chemicals it thinks need evaluating. But so far, no phthalate substitute has been added to that list, and even if it was, evaluations can take many years and rarely result in bans.

Well, what about the Consumer Products Safety Commission? Here's Julie Vallese, the commission's former spokesperson.

JULIE VALLESE: The Consumer Products Safety Commission doesn't do pre-approval of products before going onto the market.

VARNEY: If I'm a parent and I know now that this bath toy - it says its phthalate-free, who can I go to find out what's actually in that product?

VALLESE: Well, the manufacturers may not have to tell you that. The manufacturers are the ones that know what's in their products, and that's the best place for people to go.

VARNEY: Lee says under the new federal law, manufacturers will have to certify their products don't contain phthalates, but they don't have to tell you or me what's in them instead. It's a trade secret. I decided to try, anyway. I asked most of the major toy companies what they were using to replace phthalates. Here's a sampling of their answers. Alex Toys: no comment. Disney: no comment. Hasbro: It's confidential. Sassy: won't specify substitutes. Mattel, which makes...

Unidentified Woman: Barbie.

Unidentified Man #1: Fisher Price.

Woman: American Girl.

Man #1: Hot Wheels, Tyco.

VARNEY: ...told me they were using something called citrates and a new chemical called DINCH. That's...

Unidentified Man #2: Diisononyl cyclohexane carboxylic dicarboxylate.

VARNEY: Gary Jones of Learning Curve says his company is using DINCH, too.

GARY JONES: That's a product that was extensively tested in Europe, and it has also been approved for food contact use pretty much around the world. So we took the road of making sure that we have a product that is recognized as safe.

VARNEY: The German chemical giant BASF started selling DINCH in 2002. The company's manager for plasticizers told me that today, it's the most widely used phthalate substitute in the world. Citrates have been widely tested and have been found to be safe for use by children. They're approved for use in products that come in contact with food both in the US and Europe. But there's been a lot less research on the safety of DINCH. There are no peer-reviewed publicly available data on the chemical's toxicity, and what we know about it comes from animal studies conducted by the manufacturer and given to European food regulators.

In those studies, BASF tested the chemical on rats and rabbits, and company reports show DINCH does seem to pose some risks to the kidney. Nearly all chemicals, if given at high enough doses, are toxic. So scientists usually look for signs of toxicity at low or middle doses. In this case, male rats developed kidney damage from middle doses. That led European regulators to set a limit on how much DINCH humans should be exposed to each day. I asked California EPA toxicologist Stephen Dizio how much DINCH a new born baby would need to ingest before he might be harmed.

DIZIO: If the child weighed eight pounds, it would be four milligrams total he could take in.

VARNEY: That's less than a grain of rice.

Is there any way to determine, then - if I'm looking at my list of products where DINCH has been substituted in for a previous phthalate - how much DINCH I'm going to be sucking in over the course of a day, or the course of a week, or a year?

DIZIO: I need to look.

VARNEY: It turns out there isn't really a way to answer that question. While BASF studies suggest how much DINCH migrates into food from plastic wrap and food containers, there is no good guesstimate for how much DINCH your baby could ingest from a teething ring, or in my family, Felipe the purple whale. The toxicologists I talked to all said DINCH looks to be a better choice than phthalates for children's products, but there are a lot of questions that will likely take years of research to answer, in part because the methods scientists use to evaluate health risks posed by potentially toxic chemicals are in some cases half a century old. In the not-too-distant future, though, California consumers could become much more enlightened about what's in the products they buy.

Two new states laws will eventually require companies to post the chemicals in their products in an online database, and they will likely have to prove that those chemicals are safe before they're allowed to sell them in the state. And if the phthalate ban which started in California is any guide, manufactures around the country may someday face those requirements, too.

For NPR news, I'm Sarah Varney.

MONTAGNE: You can view an interactive graphic about contaminates in the home and how the regulation of phthalates has changed over the years. It's on our Web site: npr.org.

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