INSIGHT: Trouble in Toytown

30 June 2010 17:53  [Source: ICIS news]

By Stephanie Wilson

LONDON (ICIS news)--As a new aunt, I think it’s perfectly normal to have a slightly unnatural interest in the health of my baby niece. While buying gifts for the new arrival, I was struck by how many baby toys, bottles and even car seats were marketed as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) free. But how dangerous are vinyls to your bundle of joy?

According to claims made by the US Center for Health, Environment and Justice, PVC is the most toxic plastic for both our health and environment. Vinyl chloride monomer (VCM - upstream from PVC) is classed as a ‘known human carcinogen’, and there have been concerns over the safety of phthalates (plasticisers used to make PVC more flexible) for many years.

Indeed, several organisations have linked PVC, the dioxins (released when PVC reaches the end of its lifecycle) and phthalates to everything from cancer to obesity, asthma to autism spectrum disorder.

In a press release, Greenpeace claimed that phthalates were “known to leach out into the environment (or into the body) over time… Research indicates that exposure to these substances can upset the body's ability to regulate hormone production, damage reproduction, and cause liver and kidney defects. They can also possibly cause cancer.”

Although a spokesperson at Greenpeace outlined that the company was not currently campaigning on PVC, many other organisations are still making their voices heard.

Phthalates come particularly under scrutiny in the children’s toys industry. In 1999 the European Commission bowed to increasing pressure and passed an emergency ban on the use of six phthalates in toys that were made specifically for children under three years old and those that were manufactured for being mouthed (such as teething rings), while in 2005 the use of di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) in toys was banned altogether.

However, while many parents feel that the legislation does not go far enough, many major toy manufacturers continue to use both phthalates and PVC in toys for older children.

Chris Howick, Products Stewardship Manager at INEOS ChlorVinyls, still questions the science behind the ban. “It is very difficult to simulate the chewing and sucking action of a child and conclude how much they might ingest. The final risk assessments concluded that phthalates were perfectly safe but it would have been a political mountain to try and revoke the emergency ban.” 

Howick went on to explain: “The experiments which linked phthalates to cancer [and other health issues] are based on laboratory animals at high doses in order to see what the effects would be. These are way above any potential human exposure; a lethal dose of phthalates would have to be enormous… [However,] although the toy market is a very small segment of the PVC industry, it is very emotive.”

This was echoed by Philip Law of the British Plastics Federation, who said: “Such claims are potentially damaging for the industry and are out of touch with any real scientific basis. There is no risk assessment that says that phthalates are damaging to consumers.”

This does not stop campaigners going further in their bid to ban PVC from schools and in electrical and consumer goods, however.

Indeed, a number of large consumer goods manufacturers, such as Apple, Nike, Electrolux and Microsoft, have already announced their commitment to be completely PVC free in the near future.

Howick outlined: “We are not seeing the impacts of this on the market yet; there’s been no mass migration away from PVC in recent years, although volumes of DEHP have certainly decreased.

“We are constantly developing alternatives to phthalate plasticisers, such as renewable materials manufactured from caster oil, but I do not think that plasticisers will be phased out of the PVC market altogether.”

Law, of the British Plastics Federation, concluded: “The PVC industry has been subject to so many independent assessments by the EU commission that it is one of the most studied and tested plastics.”

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By: Stephanie Wilson
+44 20 8652 3214



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