STATS ARTICLES 2008

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San Francisco Chronicle “toying” with parents’ fears
Trevor Butterworth, Nov 26, 2008
Media scaremongering over vinyl toys shows how little journalists know about science

The louder the media shouts about the perfidy of phthalates, the greater the probability that the journalist doing the shouting doesn’t know much about science or care. Phthalates have become something more than a chemical that has many, and hitherto safe, uses in everything from medical equipment to children’s toys; they are now symbols of industrial perfidy, a repository of disgust with the Bush administration’s perversion of science, and a scandal to redeem journalists from an increasing lack of social utility. Hence, the following hyperbolic editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Merry Christmas, American children! The Bush administration has a special Christmas present for you: phthalates in your toys now, and phthalates in your toys for as long as companies have them.

Sound merry? Well, no, considering that exposure to phthalates can harm the development of reproductive organs and have been linked to cancer. The chemical is used to soften plastic - making it popular for rubber ducks, teething toys, and anything else that young children love to chew on - but it's banned in much of the industrialized world and, starting in January, the state of California.”

Let’s assume for a moment that scientists such as William S. Knowles, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, are wrong when they say phthalates are safe, and let’s assume that the European politicians who enacted a ban on phthalates in children’s toys against the advice of their own scientists, are right; let’s grant the editorial writers at the San Francisco the illusion of expertise, and declare that phthalates pose some kind of health risk: the question is do vinyl toys make that risk a manifest threat?

If a parent, in other words, fails to check to see whether the specific phthalate in vinyl toys – DINP – is present in the toy they buy for their child, will something bad happen to the child, like getting cancer, as the Chronicle suggests?

Here’s what the European Union says about DINP and cancer: “There is no concern for a potential carcinogenic effect in humans.” (Summary, p22) Why? The modes of action that caused cancer in lab rats are not applicable to humans.

What about development of reproductive organs? The European Union calculated that for children up to three years of age, the maximum total daily intake of DINP from all sources was 0.156mg/kg bw/d. Though it didn’t draw a formal conclusion about reproductive risk, it did note that there was a NOAEL (No Observed Adverse Effect Level) for DINP of 311 mg/kg bw/d, and that the gap between actual daily exposure and the scale of exposure one would need to reach the safety threshold was so great there was no cause for concern:

“The end products containing DINP (clothes, building materials, toys and baby equipment) and  the sources of exposure (car and public transport interiors, food and food packaging) are  unlikely to pose a risk for consumers (adults, infants and newborns) following inhalation, skin  contact and ingestion.”

What the San Francisco Chronicle has done is conflate the risk of one phthalate in toys with the potential risks of all phthalates from all sources. And that just isn't playing fair. (the evidence that even the combined exposure poses a significant threat to health is also limited).

So, as a consumer, you can believe the San Francisco Chronicle, or you can read the E.U. risk assessment for yourself and decide whether this is something worth worrying about. Either way, make sure that you dispose of the plastic wrapping from any toys you do buy, as each year, children demonstrate the actual risks from plastic by dying from suffocation. That, perhaps, is the kind of measurable risk worth remembering during the holiday season.


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