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Week of 3.21.08

Transcript: Toxic Toys?

BRANCACCIO: The rough week on Wall Street has many rethinking the hands-off approach the government has been taking on regulating the financial markets. The fact is that under the Bush Administration, government regulation has been a dirty word in Washington, whether it be the markets, or pollution or consumer products. Senior corespondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Kathleen Hughes have found that when it comes to the safety of children's toys, one state is stepping in because the federal government has not taken action.

BRUNE: So I just wanted to say thank you to everyone for coming to our toy testing party tonight and bringing your kids and bringing your toys

HINOJOSA: Mary Brune is a dedicated mom from the San Francisco Bay area. Last month she gathered a bunch of other mothers for what you might call a modern day Tupperware party... But instead of shopping for plastic containers, the group has done something unusual. They've brought in a local environmentalist, Michael Green, to test their kids' plastic toys...the soft squishy kind ...

HINOJOSA: Toys like this are meant to be harmless...there are no hard edges or small parts to choke on. But these moms are on a quest...could it be that even the most innocent looking toys are hiding invisible chemicals...

GREENE: This one is not PVC, it's plastic.

HINOJOSA: Tonight they're screening for potential toxics that even in small amounts are suspected of disrupting hormonal development—possibly altering the size of a baby boys genitals...and possibly contributing to reproductive problems - even cancer—when they grow up.

GREENE: And the buttons aren't PVC either.

BRUNE: Phew. That's Olivia's...

GREENE: It's Olivia's favorite...

BRUNE: And she plays with it all the time.

HINOJOSA: These moms are worried about Phthalates a hard to pronounce group of chemicals you've probably never heard of —even though they've been used for years in toys, perfumes, lotions, shower curtains, medical products and dozens of other everyday household items. Phthalates make plastics softer and fragrances longer-lasting.

BRUNE: You don't want to take her down the slide?

HINOJOSA: But Mary Brune, the mom who organized the testing party, was shocked when she heard this hard to believe fact... traces of Phthalates can be found in the blood and urine of just about every human on the planet.

BRUNE: Companies didn't ask whether it's okay with me if they store some of their chemicals inside my body, or that—if they store some of the chemicals inside my daughter's body. It's a violation.

HINOJOSA: Debbie Raphael is a toxics expert for the city of San Francisco's department of the environment... she has been trying to get a handle on which toys sold in town are phthalate free and which toys are not.

RAPHAEL: Phthalates became almost the poster child for this problem of right to know, that as consumers, we don't have the right to know in this country what we're being exposed to.

HINOJOSA: To demonstrate just how hard it is to find out, Raphael set up a little experiment for us. It started with a shopping trip ...in search of plastic toys and other items kids under three might play with.

RAPHAEL: There is no way by looking, reading the label. There's nothing on this that says 'does contain phthalates, doesn't contain phthalates.' What it's made out of, if it's PVC plastic.

HINOJOSA: If a soft toy is made from PVC or polyvinyl chloride there's a good chance it also contains phthalates. Like grownups, kids are exposed to phthalates everywhere. But because kid's brains and bodies are developing so rapidly some scientists believe youngsters are much more vulnerable to so-called hormone disrupters like Phthalates, even in small amounts. . Removing them from toys only makes sense, Debbie Raphael says, especially when soft toys so often wind up in mouths.

RAPHAEL: This is Nickelodeon Sponge Bob Square pants. Clearly is says for 9 months and above. The expectation is that a child—this would be with this in the bath and go in their mouth. And then there is the octopus, another, not really something is designed to go in the mouth, but chances are, if I gave this to my daughter, she would want to chew on it, it's attractive and it's [SQUEAK] —squishy—And it makes noise.

HINOJOSA: But what really galls Raphael...is while you can sell these toys here, they are illegal in the European Union.

RAPHAEL: Europe is way ahead of the United States in caring about the kinds of chemicals that are allowed to be used in consumer products.

HINOJOSA: For years Raphael has been part of a team of California health officials working to make California more like Europe.

RAPHAEL: And so we worked together, bringing the best science to the table. And said, "We can stand on our feet very confidently and say, 'There is no reason that we should be exposing San Francisco children to these chemicals.'"

HINOJOSA: Two years ago, San Francisco became the first city in America to ban phthalates. The measure was immediately challenged by the toy and chemical industries...They sued saying the city had no right to regulate chemicals that are legal everywhere else. In the meantime, legislators in Sacramento, stepped in and using rubber duckies as props, proposed to take the ban statewide...and they won. Starting next January, phthalates in products for children under three will be illegal in the state of California. Until then, it remains a guessing game for parents here and across the country. We took our haul to Raphael's office at the San Francisco Department of Health Environmentalist Michael Green, was there, armed with his X-Ray device.

HINOJOSA: Great. Okay, alright. So, we're gonna test each product then.
We have 18 toys and products. Sponge Bob goes first. It's a two part process....First, we need to see which toys are made from PVC ...Phthalates are often, but not always used to soften PVC. Toys that are not PVC, probably don't contain phthalates.

GREENE: (TONE) So, the test is complete. It is PVC.

HINOJOSA: So, is Sponge Bob not good?

RAPHAEL: I can't tell you that yet.

HINOJOSA: The gun can only tell us whether the toy has PVC. If it does, it will be sent on to a lab for further testing... It takes about 30 minutes to test everything...

HINOJOSA: Alright. So, we've tested everything with the gun. What did you guys find out so far?

RAPHAEL: Well, we've got two groups of toys. We've got the groups of toys that we know are made of PVC plastic, 12 of our 18 toys were made from PVC plastic.

HINOJOSA: Which means they probably have phthalates.

RAPHAEL: Probably, could. You know? I think you can tell that there's no way by looking at the toys that you would predict that this one is not made of PVC and this one is made of PVC—

HINOJOSA: Wow. Amazing. I mean, essentially very similar—

RAPHAEL: You can't tell why one teething ring is made of PVC and one isn't.

HINOJOSA: In a about a week the lab report will reveal which of these PVC toys contain Phthalates. It's a service virtually no parent can buy.

RAPHAEL: The manufacturers know whether or not there are phthalates in there. It's not like it's a mystery to them. Why must it be a mystery to us? Why do we have to send it for an expensive test to determine whether or not that is safe?

HINOJOSA: And if you think it's just Phthalates, think again says investigative reporter Mark Schapiro.

SCHAPIRO: I think Americans have this kind of basic presumption that—someone out there in the government is systematically assessing—what is and is not safe.

HINOJOSA: Schapiro is the Director of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley. He has been writing about chemical safety for nearly a quarter century. His most recent book—"Exposed: the Toxic chemistry of Everyday products and what's at State for American Power,"—makes the case that the US has fallen behind Europe and the rest of the developed world when it comes to regulating potentially dangerous chemicals.

HINOJOSA: The United States is supposed to be the most advanced industrial society, technological society. We're ahead of the game on things.

SCHAPIRO: Yeah, well, this is a big change.

HINOJOSA: Shapiro says this one small bottle of American made nail polish shows just how far behind American regulators have fallen.

SCHAPIRO: We have really no idea what's in that—what—what the toxic nature of what's in that—bottle is, right but what's interesting is if you were in—Europe, what you would know is that that nail polish did not contain substances that cause cancer, that cause damage to the reproductive system, or that cause mutations in genes because those three—chemical families have actually been mandated to be removed from—cosmetics in Europe.

SCHAPIRO: The US hasn't banned a chemical in like 17 years. Hasn't banned a single chem—

HINOJOSA: Not one?

SCHAPIRO: Not one chemical.

HINOJOSA: While the United States sits on its hands, the European Union has banned hundreds of chemicals in everyday products. Policy makers there admit to some scientific uncertainty about whether all the chemicals cause harm, but the EU has adopted a particular philosophical bent on the issue of chemicals...they call it the precautionary principal... which means... better safe than sorry..

SCHAPIRO: the precautionary principle holds that essentially, the government is empowered to act upon an accumulation of scientific evidence. So—evidence begins to mount. And the EU assesses that evidence, and sees that, "Maybe there's something we can do here before the harm happens."

HINOJOSA: It's not that way in Washington. Instead of saying "better safe than sorry," the Environmental Protection Agency says "prove it"—prove that the science is conclusive. It's helped bring chemical regulation in Washington to a standstill, and made it virtually impossible for American consumers to adopt the precautionary principle themselves.

RAPHAEL: I don't believe that decision makers, policy makers are intentionally allowing chemicals to, into commerce to cause harm. I think the problem is, is that we're stuck. We're stuck in this place of indecision, because of scientific uncertainty. Because the manufacturers can say to us, "Yes, there are phthalates in there. We don't argue that there's phthalates in that rubber ducky. And we even don't argue that the child puts that rubber ducky in their mouth. But you cannot prove, it's gonna cause cancer in them 30 years from now."

HINOJOSA: For decades, scientists, the world over have been studying Phthalates and other chemicals that may disrupt hormones. Epidemiologist Dr. Shanna Swan is one of them. She has been looking at the effects of phthalates on infant boys and she says, it may be time to worry.

HINOJOSA: You authored a study that actually looked for the first time at the presence of phthalates in human beings. .

SWAN: Ours was their first to look at what was the effect of a mother having say higher levels of phthalates, what was the effect on her offspring? No one had done that.

HINOJOSA: Three years ago Swan and a team of researchers measured the amount of Phthalates in the urine of pregnant women and then examined their infant boys.

SWAN: So they're genitals were somewhat subtly but significantly smaller if their mothers had higher levels of several of the phthalates.

HINOJOSA: Dr. Swan says that even boys with smaller genitals fell into what's considered the range of normal, so it's possible they'll grow up healthy. But the reason her findings are considered significant is that they mimic what's been seen in studies on lab rats.

SWAN: We're basing this on the fact that in infancy, we see something similar to what would be predicted by the rodent studies. And therefore we think it's a reasonable hypothesis that as these boys age, they will go on to have problems.

HINOJOSA: Even though the Environmental Protection Agency spends millions every year researching endocrine disruptors like Phthalates and even though the EPA funded Dr. Swan's research team, she has never been asked to testify in front of Congress. Yet policy makers in California and the European Union have cited her work when explaining their phthalate bans.

SCHAPIRO: Some of the best—and—and most sophisticated science on some of these issues is coming out of EPA-funded—scientists. And—and—but the problem has been that those scientists have had nobody to talk to in the political realm to act on their science.

HINOJOSA: So the European Union bans phthalates based on the work—or, in large part, based on the work—on what American scientists are finding out about phthalates?

SCHAPIRO: Yeah. Yeah.

HINOJOSA: And yet, we don't ban it here?

SCHAPIRO: Exactly. That's exactly what's happening.

HINOJOSA: Where do you believe that the resistance is coming from?

SWAN: I'm sure there's a lot of resistance from industry. And I've encountered it—from the American Chemistry Council and—and just from the companies that produce—phthalates. I think that's to be expected. They're businesses. They—they're out to protect their products and I—I think that's—that's the game, you know.

HINOJOSA: We contacted the American Chemistry council, the lobbying arm for the multi-billion dollar chemical industry. But it never made a spokesperson available for an interview. However, we did catch up with Dr. Rebecca Goldin, an associate professor of mathematics at George Mason University and one of Dr. Swan's most outspoken critics.

GOLDIN: I think that Swan's study showed that there is a possibility of something serious going on. But it got—it—it fell short of showing anything that was biologically significant for humans.

HINOJOSA: Goldin is also director of research for an organization called Statistical Assessment Service, or STATS, which identifies itself as a non-partisan group dedicated to helping the media interpret science.
Her critique of Dr. Swan's peer reviewed study is posted on the Phthalates Information Center...a website created by the American Chemistry Council.

GOLDIN: So to take a study that did not try to assess whether there were fertility problems. Because the children were still children. That could not have assessed genital defects because there were none in the study. And to take that public and to say phthalates are causing genital defects is scientifically irresponsible in my opinion.

HINOJOSA: But you don't disagree that in Dr. Swan's study that there is a correlation between the exposure of phthalates—in utero to something that happens in boys? Something happens there.

GOLDIN: Something happens, yeah, I don't disagree with that.

HINOJOSA: What you're saying is we don't know if it's necessarily bad?

GOLDIN: I don't know if it—we don't know if it's necessarily
bad, exactly.

HINOJOSA: And when you hear other scientists who say—"Professor Swan, you are being an alarmist. And it's too soon to tell..."

SWAN: It may be too soon but it's going to take 20 years to know about these boys we're studying now. And all that time, we could be unnecessarily exposing our children to something that is preventable.

GOLDIN: There isn't a consensus about what happens to humans yet. If that consensus comes about and says that these things are dangerous, I think that a lot of people would want to—to ban them.

HINOJOSA: Goldin says when thinking about the precautionary principle, we must also think about the economic costs.

GOLDIN: Would we wanna give up all the nice little pliable baby toys that's got this nice soft vinyl? Would we wanna give up all the things that we use phthalates for? They are in our cosmetics and our perfumes. There are costs to giving it up. Our ability to just, you know, you wanna buy packaged food. Packaged food comes in plastic wraps that contain phthalates. So there are—those—those substances are really everywhere. We would be radically changing our lives to avoid them.

SCHAPIRO: There are alternatives out there. And that's the key thing. There are alternatives to phthalates right now, being used in all those toys in Europe. Right? I mean, those kids have not give—they're—they're not sitting around playing with stones in—in—in—in Europe, I can assure you of that. They've got plenty of fun little toys and fun little plastic do-dads to play with, they just don't have phthalates in them. And why is that? That's because the industry in Europe was—prompted to go find safer alternatives. And the thing is, they found 'em.

HINOJOSA: And when industry says, "You know what? We're going to have to spend millions upon millions of dollars for an alternative," or, "We're gonna have to—we might lose millions of dollars in the process of, let's say, banning certain toys with phthalates in the Unites States, and industry is going to suffer."

SCHAPIRO: I looked very closely at those arguments from the toy industry and other industry (SIC) that I looked at in the book. And I said, "All right. So what did happen to the toy industry in Europe when they banned phthalates?"

HINOJOSA: What did happen to the toy industry in Europe?

SCHAPIRO: What did happen? Nothing happened. The—the economic impact was negligible.

HINOJOSA: Last month at New York's annual Toy Fair where the newest and hottest children's toys from around the world were being shown off, we talked to several representatives of industry—European and American —who said squishy toys could be made without phthalates.

MAN: In order to produce non phthalate products requires different chemicals that are more expensive, but there's no visual difference. It's it'll look and feel the same.

HINOJOSA: But Joan Lawrence, a Vice President of the Toy Industry Association, one of the groups that sued to prevent a phthalate ban in California, was adamant that exposure levels are not high enough to warrant regulation.

LAWRENCE: And that science tells us that phthalates as used in toys are safe for children.

HINOJOSA: It seems American industry, backed by the Bush Administration is determined to keep the precautionary principle from moving to American shores. While writing his book, Schapiro traveled to the capitol of the European Union to interview lawmakers about the costs of change. What he encountered in Brussels was an army of Bush Administration officials and lobbyists from American industries attempting to weaken Europe's environmental laws. The Europeans were outraged.

SCHAPIRO: The incredible—resentment of American lobbying was palpable. People would say to me like, "What—how dare The United States come in here and tell me how to vote on a bill affecting the people of Europe"

HINOJOSA: That reaction, says Schapiro, signals that America's power to set standards in the global economy is diminishing. The European Union, with 27 member countries, now stands as the world's richest economy.

SCHAPIRO: The E.U. has become the major market force. And when they write rules, now the rest of the world has to follow. We're also losing our—innovative drive because many of these laws, when it requires the development of alternative substances, create innovative industries, you know. Hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment going into finding—less toxic alternatives, greener chemicals, more healthy ways to go about manufacturing. And these are entire, huge industries that are now—being developed in Europe that we're losing out on here in The United States because we don't have the same prompting by—by our government.

HINOJOSA: And here's another hard to believe but true fact.... China, which makes 85 percent of the world's toys, has developed two manufacturing lines.

SCHAPIRO: The United States does not require the removal of phthalates, we get toys with phthalates. The European Union requires the removal of phthalates, you have phthalate-free toys, all of them made in China.

HINOJOSA: Are we in fact the dumping ground for toys that contain phthalates that are banned in other places?

SCHAPIRO: Well that is—unfortunately the case.

HINOJOSA: What happens though when you hear not only the entire European Union has banned phthalates from toys, but then you have other countries that are following Europe's lead, Japan, Norway, Argentina, Mexico, Canada.

GOLDIN: You know, we always teach our children, if you—if—if your friend jumped off a bridge, would you? In other words, let's not jump on the bandwagon. Let's actually try to evaluate the science of it.

HINOJOSA: A couple of days after our shopping trip, San Francisco health officer Debbie Raphael takes our 12 PVC toys to the lab at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control for further testing ....technicians grind them up and test them for phthalates....Preliminary results found that 8 of our 12 toys contain levels that would be illegal for sale in the EU and, come 2009, the state of California. Sponge Bob Overdosed- at 2.7 percent phthalate by weight, he is 27 times over the limit....But he's only a minor offender....The screwdriver and hammer from our Handy Manny tool set were 50 times over the limit. The little pink piggie? 410 times over. Gumby, came in at 48 percent phthalate by weight - 480 times the limit. And remember our squeaking octopus? A whopping 73 percent phthalate by weight—that's 730 times the legal limit in the EU. On phthalates California has decided it's better to be safe than sorry...11 other states are considering similar bills...Meanwhile, just two weeks ago California's senator in Washington, Diane Feinstein, surprised everyone when she proposed a nationwide ban.

SENATOR FEINSTEIN: So parents in every state should be able to enter any toy store, buy a present for their child, and know that they're not placing their son or daughter's heath at risk.

HINOJOSA: It's currently being fought over in committee. And recently retailers like Walmart and Toys 'R' Us announced they would provide customers with phthalate free toys but at the moment there's nothing to force those companies to comply—those promises are only voluntary.

HINOJOSA: There's so much toxicity. Is banning phthalates really the answer?

RAPHAEL: Banning phthalates is the beginning. It is not the end of the story. And the reason that phthalates have turned into such an important chemical for us is they point to a larger problem. If we just fix the phthalate problem and go home and say we're done, we're missing the point. And I can't go home at night knowing that these chemicals are in consumer products and not try and make change happen.

BRANCACCIO: You've seen the shaky economy in this country has dominated the headlines this week. The thing is it is not just about Wall Street it is an economic crisis that touches families across America. What can be done to prevent another crisis? Check out my web-exclusive interview with leading economic forecaster Allen Sinai. It's all on our website. And that's it for NOW from New York. I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.