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TOXIC TOY STORY

The PVC Lifecycle

One of the reasons that PVC is bad for people and the environment is that two of the chlorine-based chemicals involved in pvc production, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride monomer, are hazardous in and of themselves. Ethylene dichloride is a possible human carcinogen and vinyl chloride monomer is a known human carcinogen. Production of those pvc "building blocks" can also produce dioxin, one of the most toxic substances known to humans. In the process of making vinyl chloride monomer into polyvinyl chloride for Barbies or thousands of other uses, more dioxin and other toxic by-products are also likely to be produced.

Dioxin is an unwanted by-product of a number of industrial processes, including incineration, chlorinated bleaching wood pulp cellulose, and the manufacture of PVC. It doesn't degrade easily and so builds up both in the environment and in our bodies, where it is stored in fat. Dioxin has been linked to a host of health effects in wildlife and humans, including various cancers, endometriosis, and problems with the body's hormone system, which is responsible for growth, sexual development, and reproduction.

PVC by itself is very brittle, so depending on the intended use, a variety of plasticizers and stabilizers may be added. Many of these compounds are toxic, too. Some common stabilizers used in PVC include lead and organotin compounds.

In 1996, lead was found to leach out of imported vinyl (PVC) mini-blinds, creating a lead hazard for small children. Lead affects the nervous and reproductive systems and in children, can cause permanent brain damage. We know lead is bad-that's why we don't let our kids eat paint. Why should we let them have toys that might contain lead? Organotins have been linked to birth defects in rats. All three of these heavy metals are suspected hormone-disrupting chemicals.

A 1997 report by Greenpeace USA sampled 131 toys and children's products for lead and cadmium. More than 20 percent were found to contain greater than 100 parts per million of lead. Most of the toys were purchased from chain stores like Toys R Us, Kmart, Wal-Mart, or Target and/or were major labels, like Disney or Barbie.

Lastly, because PVC contains so much chlorine (about 57 percent by volume), it can also produce dioxin when it is incinerated or accidentally burned. Burning PVC can also release the heavy metal stabilizers into the air and the environment. If I were to throw out that Beanie Baby in my household trash, it would be taken to our local garbage incinerator, where it could release any number of pollutants into the environment. So for now, we're stuck with it.

What About Recycling?

If Barbie or any other toy made of PVC happens to be labeled with a recycling code, it will be a "3." Recycling PVC is problematic, particularly because most PVC in commerce-including toys-is not labeled. PVC is a common contaminant in plastics collected for recycling, and its high chlorine levels may render polyethylene terephthalate (pet) or high-density polyethylene (hdpe) unrecycleable. When burned, pvc creates hydrochloric acid, which can "eat" the other resins. In fact, one PVC item can destroy up to 100,000 pet bottles.

PVC and Toys Around the World

Many European countries have already seen some action taken on PVC in toys. For example, some manufacturers voluntarily withdrew soft PVC toys from the market after the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that phthalates could leach from teething rings. One Swedish manufacturer, KF, voluntarily withdrew 75 products for testing. The International Council of Toy Industries of Europe has reportedly set up a working group on the health risks associated with PVC. The Danish EPA plans to use a system of taxes, labels, and public purchasing policies to eventually phase out phthalates. Sweden's government is considering a ban on phthalates in PVC toys for kids under age three and also promises that, "If the environmental impact of PVC is not reduced, PVC plastic will be banned."

As of this writing, the European Commission (EC) has just agreed to draw up a directive, to be prepared by EC Consumer Protection Commissioner Emma Bonino, that will address the use of phthalates in PVC products. Ms. Bonino had requested the EC to support a three-month ban on the sale of chewable soft pvc toys. Teething rings and other toys would have been banned because of health concerns-particularly liver damage-over the levels of DEHP and DINP found to leach out of the products. Yet our own US Commerce Department and Consumer Product Safety Commission may have played a role in the EC's decision not to invoke a ban which "might cause trade misunderstandings between the United States and the European Union."

As Swedish environment minister Anna Lindh has said, "The PVC industry has had a very long time to find substitutes for hazardous compounds but it evidently has not managed to do so.... It is the fault of the industry that PVC is no longer acceptable."

What's a Concerned Parent to Do?

Here are a few of the strategies I've employed to reduce my children's and the environment's risks from pvc toys. Next time you're shopping for a birthday or holiday gift, these are a few things to consider:

Written by: Jackie Hunt Christensen


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