Malibu Barbie, Holiday Barbie ... Toxic Barbie?

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 25, 2000 -- For generations, parents and grandparents have passed along their old Barbie dolls to little ones. Now a report shows that this might not be such a healthy idea. Information presented this week at the American Chemical Society meeting in Washington suggests that some vintage toys -- including Barbies -- may pose a health risk to very young children.

According to Yvonne Shashoua, a conservation scientist and chemist with the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, some old Barbie dolls manufactured in the early years after her release in 1959 contain polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. PVC has also been found in "protective clothing, footwear ... and medical equipment," says Shashoua. Some of these items are deteriorating and oozing a chemical that could disrupt development and interfere with the reproductive system in very young children.

PVC is a chemical found in thousands of products to help keep them soft. While PVC has been linked to cancer and kidney and liver damage in animals, the threat to humans has not been proven. Some European studies have shown that when PVC begins to deteriorate, a chemical is emitted that can mimic the female hormone estrogen, causing potential danger.

But Shashoua says, "It's not a cause for alarm, but rather caution."

"The dolls are not poisonous -- it's not like rat poison," she tells WebMD, "but it is something that can build up in the body and have future effects. The effects are known, but the quantities that can produce an effect are not known," she says. "It's best to be cautious."

But some experts aren't so sure about the Barbie hoopla.

Joseph Prohaska, PhD, says he believes that the report "is a bit overreacting." He says, in fact, estrogen similar to that found in some Barbie dolls is not harmful. "I would be careful not to pull the fire alarm without more information," he tells WebMD. Prohaska is professor and biochemist in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in Maryland had no specific comment about PVC in old Barbie dolls, but a spokeswoman did tell WebMD, "We will review the work conducted by the Danish researchers and determine if there is a need for concern."

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Owners of vintage dolls can recognize PVC by a stickiness or the 'tacky' feel on the outside the doll. "These [dolls] have become sticky on the surface and difficult to handle," Shashoua says. "If you have a Barbie doll from the '50s and it's sticky, always wash your hands and never let children lick or chew them. The best thing is to put them in a plastic bag and avoid contact with the surface."

But although many people have vintage Barbies, it's not likely that many of the dolls in circulation pose a health risk. According to collector Sarah Locker, president of the Barbie Doll Club of Eastern Oklahoma in Tulsa, "This doesn't concern me too much because most of these dolls are in the hands of adult collectors and rarely handled," she tells WebMD. "Collectable dolls are usually kept in climate-controlled situations well away from sunlight and are not exposed to the elements that cause the plasticizers to leak."

No one really knows how many vintage Barbies or other toys containing PVC are in circulation because everyday, more are found in the back of closets, basements, and in attics. And these are the toys most likely to be emitting the chemicals. Still, Locker has seen only two or three dolls that were sticky, and says that's because "they were stored in the attic, which resulted in extreme cold and hot temperatures that can force the plasticizer out of the doll." These dolls -- which the collectors call 'greasy' -- can be filled with cornstarch to help absorb the plasticizers back into the doll and then stored in acid-free tissue paper.

Locker says that if the old dolls are kept away from strong sunlight and in a reasonably climate-controlled area, most of them will remain in good condition for several years and not become sticky.

Mattel Inc., manufacturer of the Barbie doll, did not respond to WebMD's request for comment. However, Shashoua says that use of the troublesome substance has been generally banned, and a new formula now used in PVC products does not pose a known health risk.

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