Photo credit: will hybrid/Flickr

Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are a class of chemicals found in many consumer products—from cosmetics to children's toys and baby products. Commonly used in fragrances and to soften PVC plastic, phthalates can interfere with hormone-driven reproductive development.

Phthalate-leaching toys and baby products pose a particular threat to infants and young children. Phthalates can be ingested, inhaled and absorbed through the skin. They interfere with the production of  testosterone and have been associated with reproductive abnormalities. Numerous animal studies have linked prenatal exposure to certain phthalates with decreases in testosterone, birth defects of the genitals and reduced sperm production. And a recent study at Mount Sinai Children's Medical Health Center found that newborn girls whose mothers had high phthalate exposures show lower levels of attention and alertness than boys born to similar mothers.

But don't bother looking for phthalates on product labels. There are no labeling requirements, and without them there is no way for even the most careful shoppers to know whether a toy or other product contains phthalates.

In 2008 Congress passed a law banning the sale of toys and child-care products that contain six different phthalates. (The law bans the same phthalates that have been barred from European toys for nearly a decade; it also lowers the allowable level of lead.) The law went into effect on February 10, 2009, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) opted to apply the ban to the production—and not the sale—of toys with these six phthalates, thereby allowing manufacturers to stockpile the banned toys and put them on store shelves long after the ban was intended to go into effect. NRDC successfully sued the CPSC to enforce the ban on toxic toys and keep them out of the hands (and mouths) of children. Read more about the lawsuit in our scientist's blog.

Toy manufacturers both in the United States and abroad are already making toys that contain no phthalates. Parents just need to find them. Several major retailers have pledged to remove or restrict children's products containing these chemicals, but this is a voluntary and unenforceable measure. Without a permanent ban, there's no assurance that baby products won't contain toxins that disrupt normal development.

What you can do

Avoid buying anything that is made of PVC plastic.

Look for toys made of unpainted, solid wood and finished with tung oil or beeswax.

Choose toys that are solidly constructed and will last long enough to be passed on to younger children, such as phthalate-free Legos, unpainted wood blocks or dolls made from organic cotton or wool.

Keep in mind that lead paint, mercury batteries, cadmium and other toxic substances are also of concern. HealthyStuff.org lists contaminant levels for a wide variety of playthings.

 

Comments

My son is 6 months old. I have plastic toys that are NEW, but I am airing them out outside hoping to off-gas the toxins. Am I correct to think that letting them air out would make them less toxic? If so, then how long should I leave them outside? Also, I have plastic toys that are OLD, at least five years old. Am I right in thinking that since they are at least five years old, then they are greatly reduced in the toxins they emit? If so, then how many years old do you think is safe? Thank you for your help! Jackie

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