Nov. 25, 2008 -- A consumer watchdog group is urging parents to avoid buying soft plastic toys this holiday season because of a risk that the toys may contain toxic chemicals.
Toys containing the chemicals, called phthalates, can no longer be manufactured or imported after February 2009, according to a product safety law that passed Congress over the summer.
But the group says the Consumer Product Safety Commission is allowing the toy industry to circumvent the law. The agency wrote a letter last week telling manufacturers they can still sell their existing stocks of phthalate-containing toys even after the ban takes effect in February.
"They're giving the industry a loophole," says Liz Hitchcock, a public health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to soften vinyl and other plastics. Congress banned use of the chemicals in toys because of evidence they can have health effects including early puberty, reproductive defects, and lower sperm counts in boys.
U.S. PIRG offered the following tips for avoiding unsafe toys:
- Don't buy soft toys made of "PVC" (polyvinyl chloride) plastic. Many of these contain phthalates and may not be labeled.
- Avoid play cosmetics with xylene or toluene or phthalates.
- Avoid cheap metal play jewelry, key chains, and similar products. Many of these products contain lead.
- Avoid toys with small parts that can pose a choking hazard to young children. Bring along a toilet paper tube on your shopping trip. Any toys or parts that fit inside the tube are too small for children aged 3 and under.
The new law stands to increase the budget and personnel at the Consumer Product Safety Commission and give the agency tougher recall authority.
The agency's move on phthalates sparked angry reactions from several Democratic members of Congress, who accused the Bush Administration of avoiding the intent of the new law.
Julie Vallese, a Consumer Products Safety Commission spokeswoman, says that the agency was not trying to give toy makers a way out of meeting new rules on phthalates. She said the wording of the law sets new standards for phthalates but does not automatically ban their sale in toys.
"Where U.S. PIRG's criticism should be is on Congress. If they don't like the language that they used, Congress has the authority to fix it," Vallese tells WebMD.
Joan Lawrence, vice president for safety standards and regulatory affairs for the Toy Industry Association, defends the industry's safety record. "The industry has been massively inspecting and testing toys since last year and government has too," she says. "The fact is, there are just far fewer issues. There's strong science that says phthalates are safe as used in toys."
Lawrence is critical of advice to avoid purchasing soft plastic toys. "I don't know that that's helpful for parents," she says. "Many soft toys don't contain pthalates, so parents will be avoiding a lot of toys for no reason."