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Malibu Barbie, Holiday Barbie ... Toxic Barbie?

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WebMD Health News

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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