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Bogus Toy Danger

Who is watching the public interest watchdogs? When it comes to the risks from dangerous toys, some reporters and newspapers are ready to swallow nonsense.

No one doubts that children are prone to all manner of environmental hazards, not least from choking on or swallowing small toys. Playtime is not always fun time. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, over 70,000 children were hospitalized for toy-related injuries last year.

And so it is that just before the onset of the holiday shopping season, various state watchdog groups – under the umbrella of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) – announce their dangerous toy lists as a public service to parents – and these warnings are duly given publicity by the media. Some of them are obvious and proven: lead jewelry, which if swallowed, can poison, plastic components that can choke; some are not-so-obvious, such as swallowing more than one magnet; and some are simply not threats at all.

For example, CBS 5 in San Francisco reported the following warning from the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) about the

“dangers are presented in teething rings and soft plastic toys containing chemicals known as phthalates, which can cause reproductive defects and early onset puberty”

And the Daily News Tribune reported the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, warning about

“cheap nail polish that contains phthalates, a toxin that can cause cancer, birth defects, early onset puberty and impedes neurological development.”

Here’s where PIRG got confused: there are eight different phthalates and only a couple, DINP and DEHP, tend to appear in children’s toys. Neither of these phthalates have ever been shown to cause reproductive effects of any kind. PIRG, in its litany of potential horrors, is, in fact, referring to research about a different phthalate, DBP, which is found in nail polish.

Additionally, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has, in fact, rejected PIRG’s request to ban DINP in toys for children under the age of five because it couldn’t find any risk based on the rate of migration of the chemical even when mouthed by a child. The European Union has also deemed DINP to be safe in toys.

The National Institutes of Health downgraded the risk of DEHP after a study showed no correlation between exposure in utero and reproductive biomarkers that might have illuminated some potential for risk.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently recommended that the daily reference dose for DBP, the phthalate in some nail polishes, should be increased as the chemical is not as dangerous as once thought.

And then there is the salient matter that no studies have ever shown that phthalates produce birth or reproductive defects, cancer, early onset puberty or neurological damage in humans or infants. The only data to show adverse exposure to DBP and DEHP in humans comes from a recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives showing “modest but significant” decreases in blood testosterone levels in Chinese PVC plant workers correlated to increased phthalate exposure. (It should be noted that the workers were exposed to far higher levels of phthalates than is likely or recommended for the general population based on western regulatory guidelines. The researchers were also unable to say whether the decreased testosterone level had an impact on the workers fertility.)

What PIRG did was take the most adverse reactions to these chemicals in rodent studies and then attribute these dangers, wholesale, to humans. This is not so much an inference warranted by toxicology than a leap of bad faith.

Rats, when forced to consume vast quantities of each phthalate have shown ill health effects; but such dosing, many thousand times the average human daily exposure does not mean that we are at risk. The actual mechanisms that make chemicals toxic to cells are dependent on the dosage – a fact illustrated by foods like potatoes and spinach, which expose us chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer and neurological problems in rodents when consumed in massive doses.

No doubt the children of America, if they had a lobbying group, would urge PIRG on towards a ban on spinach, if only for the sake of methodological consistency. PIRG, for its part, simply seems to be recycling a scare tactic from last year, and seems not to have absorbed any of the intervening research on these particular chemicals. Unfortunately, something similar can be said of one leading newspaper.

In an editorial commenting on San Francisco’s recent decision to ban several chemicals that are used in baby toys and bottles (making the city the most draconian environmental regulator in the world), the San Francisco Chronicle derided the federal government for being “missing in action” on establishing “the safety of products that are ubiquitous in children's lives.”

This editorial was written after STATS informed both the editor and the deputy editor of the paper that the federal government had indeed been investigating the safety of phthalates, but it had recently articulated conclusions that a dispassionate observer might say contradicted the sense of imminent danger pregnant in the paper’s coverage and manifest in the city’s new laws.

All of which leads to the following ethical obligation: If PIRG and the San Francisco Chronicle really believe that children are being poisoned, they need to counter the evidence against this proposition on a point-by-point basis, not by vague statements to the end that “research shows” or “some scientists say.” Otherwise, we are being treated to the postmodern equivalent of a witch trial, in which power and prejudice, not scientific method and consensus, determine what is “true.”

Please note that STATS does not receive any funding from the chemical industry


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