Toy stories and toxic monsters

February 25, 2000

Two researchers, one from the Greenpeace research laboratories at the University of Exeter, were given the opportunity to report on their research on PVC toys leading to policy changes in the European Union ("Cutting edge", THES, February 11).

I am completing a study on emerging non-governmental organisation-business relations. There is a long-standing conflict between Greenpeace and the PVC industry. Without compromising, the former wants to end the latter. Much debate centres on the substantial environmental and health allegations made on both sides.

Chemicals are added to PVC to make it soft and flexible. According to Greenpeace, laboratory studies show that some of these chemicals, notably phthalates, can be passed from toy to mouth sometimes at unacceptable and dangerous levels. Such claims link these high levels to cancer and kidney damage and say they may interfere with the reproductive system and development of children. One of the major measurements of success in the Greenpeace campaign is the disappearance or banning of PVC in toys and the growth of labels stating their own non-PVC makeup.

The THES article talked about the European Union, while ToysRUs, the major United States toy chain, recently announced a worldwide withdrawal of babies' teethers and other "direct-to-mouth" products containing phthalates. On the other hand, such toys have been sold for over 40 years without a case of any child coming to harm. There is a body of scientific opinion that demonstrates that such toys are safe beyond any reasonable doubt, and there is no conclusive evidence to suggest all non-PVC or non-phthalate alternatives are equally safe.

In 1995, Greenpeace and a number of UK retailers (Asda, Body Shop, Co-op, Lloyds Chemist, Tesco) formed a working group to discuss the use of PVC. The National Centre for Business and Ecology (NCBE) had been established in direct response to the campaigning actions of Greenpeace, which was demanding a PVC phase-out by retailers, and backing these demands with front-of-store demonstrations in UK high streets. But when the NCBE report went against Greenpeace, declaring the studies on which it rested its case to be "methodologically hopeless", Greenpeace and the Body Shop left the group.

Other disputatious points can be made since then: the PVC-free biodegradable credit card of the Co-operative Bank UK approved by Greenpeace requires 17 times more energy in manufacturing, transport costs and carbon dioxide emissions than do PVC cards.

Greenpeace welcomed the fact that 646 PVC windows are playing a big part in the UK's first solar-powered office block at Northumbria University.

The "toxic monster" was the name given to the Millennium Dome by Greenpeace when the original design contained PVC coating. The glass fibre alternative cost millions more and required seven times more chlorine in the manufacturing process than did PVC.

Public confidence in information provided by industry's scientists lags behind that provided by environmental group scientists. Although keen to state their positive health and environmental credentials, industrial companies are often portrayed, rightly or wrongly, as faceless corporations interested primarily in financial profit. Maybe The THES will give one of them opportunity to give its view.

Simon Heap. INTRAC (International NGO Training and Research Centre), Oxford.

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