Both houses of Congress last week agreed on compromise legislation to ban certain toxic chemicals known as phthalates from products intended for use by children. Phthalates have been used for decades to make plastics softer and more durable, and have become a staple item in the production of many toys. But exposure to phthalates can cause a wide range of human health problems, as the body misinterprets and reacts to them as naturally occurring hormones. Researchers suspect phthalate exposure is linked to certain cancers as well as reproductive and developmental disorders. Children can ingest phthalates by chewing on a rubber duck or other soft toys.
The ban on phthalates in children"s items goes into effect in six months, as long as Congress can muster the strength to override a veto promised by the lame duck Bush White House. Prior to Congress" action on the issue, Wal-Mart (the country"s largest retailer), Toys R Us (the biggest toy seller) and Babies R Us had announced that they would stop stocking products containing phthalates as of January 1, 2009. But consumers beware: many products on the store shelves this upcoming holiday season will still contain phthalates.
If Congress" ban holds, the U.S. will join more than a dozen other countries along with the entire European Union (and three states: California, Washington and Vermont) in banning phthalates. Environmentalists are hoping that the ban could well sound the death knell for phthalates worldwide. Of course, the world"s biggest manufacturer of phthalates may still have some fight left in them: ExxonMobil spent part of its $22 million lobbying budget to fight the just-passed legislation. No doubt the company"s lobbyists will be working the Hill when the presidential veto forces an override vote.