Cutting edge

February 11, 2000

Greenpeace research into PVC toys that leach harmful chemicals into children's mouths has led to a European product ban.

On December 9 1999 the European Commission adopted its first emergency product ban, temporarily prohibiting the use of six chemical softeners (phthalates) in toys that children might put in their mouths. The emergency ban was a key step forward in the work conducted by Greenpeace to highlight concerns surrounding avoidable exposure to hazardous chemicals in consumer products.

Greenpeace's focus on phthalates followed the publication of research into the quantities of these and other chemicals in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) toys from 17 countries worldwide. The research was conducted at the Greenpeace research laboratories, based in the department of biological sciences at the University of Exeter. This work, which began in 1996 and was published last month in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, confirmed that phthalates made up between 10 and 40 per cent of the total weight of soft PVC toys, a fact known to the manufacturers but one that had never reached the public. The industry also understood that phthalates leach out of the toys and into the mouths of children during normal use. Add to this the growing evidence that phthalates are able to cause significant health effects in animals (such as liver and kidney damage), and the case for withdrawal of soft PVC toys was scientifically defensible.

In the debate that followed, Greenpeace was accused by the PVC and toys industries of distorting the facts, of demonising a chemical for which adverse health effects in children had yet to be proven. The absence of such proof is hardly surprising given the ethical difficulties of human testing, nor sufficient grounds to block regulatory action, particularly as exposure could be avoided entirely by using alternative materials to PVC already on the market.

At the same time, the European Commission initiated studies to develop methods to measure the rate at which phthalates leach from PVC toys and may be swallowed by children, so that they might then be regulated at levels deemed "safe". Greenpeace maintained that "safe" levels were impossible to define and predicted that such studies would yield results that were inconclusive, subject to numerous unverifiable assumptions and unsuitable as a basis for public health protection. Faced with advice from its own scientific committee that the leaching tests under development were unsuitable for regulatory purposes, the commission had little option other than to propose the ban, thereafter adopted unanimously by all European countries. Had the commission adopted a precautionary approach, advocated in academic publications from these laboratories over many years, two years of continued exposure to phthalates in toys could have been avoided.

The emergency ban is an enormous step forward in the field of consumer protection, but it is not the end of the PVC toy story. In addition to phthalates, the analyses conducted by Greenpeace revealed a plethora of other chemical additives or contaminants in the PVC toys, chemicals that may also be hazardous and just as likely to leach into children's mouths. These include the oestrogenic chemicals nonyl and phenol, plus fungicides and benzene compounds. They included fungitrol 11, a recognised toxin and skin irritant.

David Santillo is a marine microbial ecologist and expert in the discharge of hazardous chemicals into the environment; Paul Johnston is principal scientist of the Greenpeace research laboratories at the University of Exeter.

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