Week of 11/18/2007

Dear EarthTalk: I have been alarmed at recent news about dangerous substances in kids" toys shipped to the U.S. from China, though I doubt that such concerns are limited to Chinese products. What are the major issues associated with chemicals in child toys?

—Carla M., Chicago, IL

Recent concerns surrounding toxic chemicals in children’s toys have focused on "phthalates" (pronounced THA-lates), a group of chemical compounds typically added to plastics to increase their softness and flexibility, and bisphenol A (BPA), a building block for polycarbonate plastic that is used primarily in shatter-resistant baby bottles. Phthalates are found in numerous industrial and consumer products, including plastic intravenous (IV) bags used in hospitals, fishing lures and nail polishes. One phthalate, diisononyl phthalate (DINP), is commonly used in the manufacture of soft vinyl products made for babies, such as bath books, rubber ducks and teething rings.

Studies have linked BPA to the disruption of hormone function in rats, and to increased breast and prostate cancer cell growth, early puberty and obesity in humans. Other studies have linked phthalates like DINP to rodent cancers and genital abnormalities, especially in males.

The city of San Francisco would have been the first U.S. jurisdiction to ban phthalates and BPA from children’s toys and feeding products under a "Stop Toxic Toys" bill signed by mayor Gavin Newsom in June 2006, but lawsuits backed by chemical and toy manufacturers (and filed by a coalition including the California Retailers Association, the California Grocers Association and the American Chemistry Council) stalled the initiative, which had been set to take effect December 1, 2006.

Then on October 15, 2007, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law AB 1108 (also known as the California Toxic Toys Bill), making California the first state in the country to ban the use of phthalates from children’s products. "We are thrilled that California is taking action to protect our kids from dangerous chemicals," said Dan Jacobson, Legislative Director for Environment California, which co-sponsored the legislation along with the Breast Cancer Fund. "This bill is so important because as children’s minds and bodies go through the delicate processes of growing and developing, they are particularly vulnerable to chemicals that could affect proper development."

The European Union considers phthalates dangerous enough to ban them from children’s products, and has ordered the removal of many variations from children’s products and banned still others, including DINP, from anything that kids might put in their mouths. Environment California and other groups see the EU ban as evidence that alternatives to these plasticizers exist and must be explored in the U.S. "Many places in the world have to comply with restrictions on phthalates," says Rachel Gibson, an attorney for Environment California. "It’s a mystery why we sell toxic toys to American kids."

Until more stringent regulations are passed, consumers can use the recycling codes on plastic products to determine content. If it’s marked #7, it’s polycarbonate plastic and contains BPA; if it’s marked #3, it’s polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and contains potentially harmful phthalates.

CONTACTS: Environment California; Breast Cancer Fund

Dear EarthTalk: What are the best sources out there for environmentally friendly consumer products? I don’t want to have to drive all over creation for green laundry and other cleaning products or to find carpets, bedding and other necessities that won’t bring chemicals into my home.

—Vanessa G., via e-mail

Although green-friendly goods are starting to show up just about everywhere, finding all the right products is still not as simple as a one-stop trip to the mall or major grocer. However, there are several reputable websites, mail order catalogs and storefront retailers that cater to the eco-motivated consumer.

Online shoppers need not steer their web browser any further than Gaiam.com. The company sells, via its website and a printed catalog, a wide range of green items—from phosphate-free detergents and organic cotton bedding to compact fluorescent light bulbs and backyard composting kits. In 2000 Gaiam acquired RealGoods, the nation’s foremost retailer of "solar living" products, including solar water heaters, energy-efficient lighting and household battery chargers. Beyond mail order endeavors, the merged company also gets green goods out into mainstream retail outlets via partnerships with Target, Borders and others.

Another good one-stop shop for green consumer goods is Green Home, which sells thousands of environmentally responsible home products online. From bedding and table wear to paper goods and lunchboxes, Green Home has the green consumer covered. Green Home was founded by Linda Mason Hunter, author of The Healthy Home: an Attic-To-Basement Guide to Toxin-Free Living, because she was having trouble sourcing environmentally friendly home items. Green Home also publishes the online magazine Living, a repository of feature articles on various aspects of living a greener lifestyle.

If you’re more inclined to browsing store aisles than websites, natural foods markets like Whole Foods and Wild Oats (now being acquired by Whole Foods) carry a large number of green lifestyle products on their shelves. These stores aren’t just about organic produce anymore, and now stock everything from green detergents to cookware.

Looking for more durable kinds of goods? The best one-stop source for green building materials is Ecohaus (formerly the Environmental Home Center), which stocks and ships a wide range of building materials, household equipment and supplies, kitchen and bath fixtures, flooring, countertops and cabinets, paints, finishes, wall coverings and home energy systems. The company has three stores in Portland and Bend, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, and also sells online.

For those harder-to-find green goods, check out EcoSeek.net, which bills itself as "the Internet’s first green product search engine." The site includes links to and in some cases reviews of more than 6,500 different green products from over 300 merchants. While it’s no one-stop shop—users purchase individual items direct from individual merchants—it does make for some interesting browsing. Another good online stop is EcoMall, which lists thousands of socially responsible manufacturers and distributors of just about every type of green product imaginable.

CONTACTS: Gaiam; Green Home; ecohaus; EcoSeek; EcoMall