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Ban Weighed On Children's Toy Ingredient

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Congress has taken a step toward banning the use of certain chemicals in the manufacture of children's toys. The chemicals are called phthalates, and the scientific investigation into their health effects is a long way from settled. In fact, Congress has sought the head of the government's own regulatory agencies. The agencies have not yet proposed a ban.

NPR's David Kestenbaum has the story.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Phthalates worry some researchers because in the body they can act like hormones. One thing is for sure, they work really well as plastic softeners.

JAN SCHAKOWSKY: I have here two rubber duckies.

KESTENBAUM: Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky at a House subcommittee hearing last month.

SCHAKOWSKY: They look and feel almost exactly the same. One is manufactured with phthalates and one without. If we know one is safe, why wouldn't we remove the possibility of danger from our children's hands and mouths?

KESTENBAUM: There is considerable scientific debate about the danger of rubber duckies. But other lawmakers seem to agree with Schakowsky. Yesterday, representatives from the Senate and House agreed to a language that would essentially ban three kinds of phthalates from use in children's toys or childcare products. If approved by both chambers, the bill would also provisionally ban three other types of phthalates.

The government has studied these chemicals. About 10 years ago, the Consumer Product Safety Commission got adults to chew and suck on kids' toys and found the amount of phthalates kids ingest generally quote, "does not even come close to a harmful level." An official with the commission reminded lawmakers of that at last month's hearing. But newer studies suggest there might be a risk.

Deborah Cory-Slechta is chairing a National Academy of Sciences panel looking into phthalates. She says the newer studies show developmental problems in male rats.

DEBORAH CORY: So you have undescended testes and other kinds of malformations, changes in testosterone levels, retained nipples in males that would never ordinarily occur. So some of those kinds of effects.

KESTENBAUM: Almost all of the research has been done in animals. But Cory- Slechta finds the studies worrisome though it's not clear what those, if any, would pose a danger for people.

CORY: There are lots of different considerations that go into that. How do you compare an animal dose to a human dose is a fairly complicated question, as you can imagine.

KESTENBAUM: The chemical industry has been lobbying Congress to let regulatory agencies decide whether phthalates should be banned. Chris Bryant is a managing director at the American Chemistry Council which represents the companies that quote, "make the products that make modern life possible."

CHRIS BRYANT: Well, we believe that these products or these chemicals, if you will, are safe for their intended use.

KESTENBAUM: Bryant says phthalates are used all over the place, floorings, insulating sealants, adhesives.

BRYANT: They've been used for 50 years. They've been the subject of hundreds of studies.

KESTENBAUM: He says the newer studies with rats in some cases conflict with previous research. And for now, he says, phthalates are the plasticizer of choice for the industry.

BRYANT: They bring several positive attributes to the product, the color and luster for example, the softness. They are, from what I understand, more cost effective than the alternatives as well.

KESTENBAUM: The ban before Congress is part of a bill that would tighten a number of product safety rules on lead and all terrain vehicles. Given previous votes, it looks like Congress will pass the legislation. Amy Klobuchar, Democratic senator from Minnesota, supports the bill and the ban.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: These are chemicals that have been banned in other countries. And, you know, when companies like Toys 'R' Us and Wal-Mart individually decide we're just going to ban these on our own, we're going to be able to find safer products that aren't a risk to kids, little babies with rubber duckies, I think it's time for the American government to get onboard.

KESTENBAUM: Chris Bryant with the American Chemistry Council says rubber duckies seem to be a popular prop in this debate. He says you can make ducks and other toys without using phthalates, but the alternative chemicals haven't been as well-studied.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.
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