RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Rubber duckies aren't what they used to be. As of a couple of months ago, they no longer contain plastic softeners called phthalates. Congress banned these additives from children's products, saying they might cause health problems. What's odd about the ban is that the government's scientists who actually studied phthalates in toys found no evidence they posed a risk to children.
NPR's Jon Hamilton has more.
JON HAMILTON: The agency that regulates rubber ducks is the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It's a small outfit - several hundred staffers working in one of those anonymous glass buildings outside Washington, D.C. The commission usually does stuff like recalling toys a child might choke on.
But for more than 25 years now, it's also been studying phthalates, which are used to make PVC plastic soft. And the commission has acted several times to protect children from these chemicals.
Dr. Maryland Wind says it's obvious which products might cause problems.
Dr. MARYLAND WIND (Deputy Executive Director, Health Sciences, Consumer Product Safety Commission): You want to look at something that's the most exposure. And most exposure is the things that kids keep in their mouths. And those would be rattles, squeeze toys, teethers, pacifiers.
HAMILTON: In the 1980s, soft toys contained a phthalate called DEHP. Wind says the commission was worried enough about it to convene a panel of experts.
Dr. WIND: And they concluded that DEHP was a rodent carcinogen. They also concluded that there were developmental and reproductive effects from DEHP.
HAMILTON: Again, in rodents. No one knew what DEHP did to people. So, the commission decided to play it safe and limit the chemical in certain kid's products. Before that could happen, though, companies voluntarily removed DEHP from items meant to be mouthed.
Instead, the industry began softening toys with a different phthalate called DINP. And wind says in the late 1990s scientists found evidence that DINP could cause liver problems in rodents. It didn't look like there was a risk to children, but Wind says the commission went back to industry anyway.
Dr. WIND: We made them aware of what we had found and they voluntarily removed DINP from toys that could mouthed.
HAMILTON: The commission also began some experiments to figure out just how much DINP kids were getting from toys. In one study, scientists had adults chew on soft plastic to make sure they knew how much phthalate got into saliva during a minute in the mouth.
An expert panel used that information to conclude that, even in a worst-case scenario, it would take a child at least 75 minutes a day of chewing or sucking to have the slightest risk from exposure.
In a second experiment, the commission sent trained observers into homes and day care centers to find out what 169 children really did with their toys. Wind says each observer carried a stopwatch.
Dr. WIND: Every time a child put something in their mouth they recorded it, clicked the timer, and when the child took it out of their mouth, they clicked the timer again and recorded the time.
HAMILTON: The study showed that even young children kept toys in their mouths less than two minutes a day. Wind says by 2003 the science was pretty clear.
Dr. WIND: We could not ban DINP because there was not a risk of injury to children.
HAMILTON: Wind summarized the whole story for Congress. The phthalate most likely to pose a risk had been removed from kids' mouths 25 years ago. To be extra cautious, another phthalate was taken out of pacifiers, teethers and rattles ten years ago. And years of study since then had found no danger from using this phthalate in other kids products.
Here's how lawmakers responded:
Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): I have here two rubber duckies.
Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois): A rubber duck sold at Walgreen's had 13 times the amount of phthalates now permissible under California law.
Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): And it can be absorbed from those products, during use, into a young child's body.
Former Representative DARLENE HOOLEY (Democrat, Oregon): They're linked to both birth and other serious reproductive defects.
Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Liver cancer, kidney cancer…
Ms. DARLENE HOOLEY (Former Democratic Representative, Oregon): …potential harm to testosterone development and the male reproductive tract, early onset puberty in girls and thyroid dysfunction.
HAMILTON: That was Senator Dianne Feinstein from California, Senator John Kerry from Massachusetts, former Representative Darlene Hooley from Oregon and Representative Jan Schakowsky from Illinois.
Their statements parroted the fears of consumer and environmental groups that have pushed to ban all PVC plastics in children's products. And it was enough to pass the law banning phthalates. But Wind, from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, says she stands by the studies.
Dr. WIND: I know that we did really good science, and sometimes people don't listen to the good science.
HAMILTON: Even when it comes from the government scientists we pay for good advice.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.