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Mercury News Urges Crack Down on Rubber Ducks

But where’s the science in paper’s call on Governor Schwarzenegger to sign bill banning phthalates in children's toys?

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions; but, as the old philosophical saw goes, a person is not entitled to his own facts. Take the San Jose Mercury News, which argues the following in an editorial today:

Here's a familiar picture: You give a rubber ducky, bath book or other soft plastic toy to a toddler. Within minutes, it ends up in the child's mouth.

That's why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should sign legislation on his desk that would ban chemicals called phthalates (pronounced THA-laytes) from toys intended for children under age three. The chemicals could be harmful if ingested over time. AB 1108, the "toxic toys" bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, would offer toy-safety protections that the youngest children deserve.

No it won’t. As research by the National Institutes of Health points out, infant exposure to phthalates is overwhelmingly from food and dust and not toys. This bill won’t alter that exposure in any meaningful way.

Nor has the most widely used phthalate in such toys (DINP) been shown to cause any of the reproductive problems the editorial goes on to cite in support of the ban - even in rodents dosed with massive amounts of the stuff.

Moreover, an infant would have to suck on a rubber toy for approximately two hours a day to absorb enough of the phthalates to reach the threshold where there might be a risk. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission rejected calls for a nationwide ban on the chemical in 2003 after it looked at a study of how babies and children mouth toys and found the most avid sucker (the 99th percentile) managed only 12 minutes per day.

The European Union’s Institute for Health and Consumer Protection also came to the conclusion that children were not at risk in the same year. Still, there’s nothing like eliminating a non-existent risk to make it look as if politicians are acting to protect their constituents, and so the European Union ignored its own scientific advisors and banned phthalates anyway.

It is not STATS’ business to tell Governor Schwarzenegger whether he should sign AB1108 into law or not. But Californians are entitled to an accurate discussion of the science so that they can make a realistic decision about risk. The Mercury News argues that “even if scientific opinion is divided” (divided between whom?), “prevention should trump.”

By that precautionary logic the Mercury News should be advocating a ban on plastic toys altogether – and perhaps even playtime. For while the risk from phthalates in toys is hypothetical, a child under the age of four has an actual risk of one in 435 of being injured by a toy, according to data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. And as the emergency room accounts show, the real risk to infants from plastic toys is from falling on them, tripping over them, sticking them in their nose, ears and eyes, and swallowing them.

For more on phthalates, read STATS “Toy Tantrums.”

Editor’s note
The San Jose Mercury News rejected an op-ed submission by STATS pointing out the scientific errors made by proponents of the bill several weeks ago.


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