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New Safety Law Doesn't Mean All's Well In Toyland

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New Safety Law Doesn't Mean All's Well In Toyland

New Safety Law Doesn't Mean All's Well In Toyland

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SARAH VARNEY: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: Unidentified Man #1: Hot Wheels, Tyco.

VARNEY: 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: 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: 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: 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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