NEW EPA UNIT TO GOVERN ANTI-GERM CLAIMS: HASBRO FINED FOR LANGUAGE ON PLASTIC TOYS

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Companies planning to make germ-resistant plastic products will be able to avoid the kind of hefty penalty recently levied on Hasbro Inc. by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA's new anti-microbe division will issue guidelines on germ-resistant products, probably this summer, according to EPA spokesman Al Heier. The guides will outline what a company can say about germ resistance and how it can register a product with the EPA.

EPA fined toy giant Hasbro $120,000 for allegedly claiming nine of its Playskool toys protect children from infectious diseases caused by bacteria. Hasbro agreed to pay the fine, revoke earlier claims and correct its information in a major advertising program. It launched the germ-resistant toys in February with much fanfare at Toy Fair in New York.

The Hasbro penalty, announced April 18, was the first such major action taken by the EPA since it formed the anti-microbial division in February, Heier said in a telephone interview. Anti-microbials formerly were the mandate of EPA's pesticide division, which is being reorganized into various new divisions.

Heier said anti-microbial issues deserve their own division because ``the public has greater hysteria over germs.'' Companies are responding to public concerns by introducing more germ-resistant products.

A microbiologist said consumers are more aware of germs than they were several years ago because of a recent spate of high-profile, gruesome infections.

``Overtly dangerous microbes'' like Hanta and Ebola viruses and drug-resistant tuberculosis strains have heightened public concerns over hygiene, said Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology at Tisch Hospital and a microbiologist at New York University Medical Center.

``There's no question companies can do something about protecting [the public] against germs,'' Tierno said.

He lauded germ-resistant products like a plastic kitchen cutting board impregnated with Microban, an anti-bacterial chemical Hasbro uses in some of its Playskool toys.

Hasbro spokesman Wayne Charness said his firm will continue to incorporate Microban in some toys and hopes to introduce more toys protected with the agent. The company also will keep Microban in its 1-2-3 High Chair for infants.

``We believe deeply in the product,'' he said from Hasbro's Pawtucket, R.I., head office.

Hasbro considers EPA's fine unwarranted and believes it stems from semantic arguments about its claims, according to Charness. The toy maker, however, will not appeal the fine in order to avoid a long legal battle.

Labels on Hasbro's Microban-containing toys included this statement: ``This unique germ-fighting technology inhibits the growth of germs on toys to help provide a better play environment for your child.''

EPA ordered Hasbro's labels to be consistent with these statements: ``Microban inhibits the growth of bacteria in plastic'' and ``Inhibits the growth of bacteria.''

EPA said although Microban is registered to inhibit bacterial growth, Hasbro's toys haven't been registered for public health claims. The agency estimated Hasbro will need to spend more than $1 million to comply with its orders, but the toy firm wouldn't confirm that figure. Besides the fine, Hasbro has to change all affected labeling, and run advertisements in USA Today, and Parents, American Baby, Child and Parenting magazines stating: ``Microban Antibacterial Protection Built in to Protect the Toy!/Inhibits the Growth of Bacteria.''

A Microban Products Co. official does not expect the Hasbro fine to cool off corporate interest in Microban. Microban Products President Glenn Cueman said plastics companies are introducing cutting boards, toothbrush handles, soap dishes, trash cans and other products containing Microban, a product based on triclosan.

Cueman said he welcomes EPA's new anti-microbial division.

``More definitive guidelines will be good for industry,'' he said in a telephone interview from his Huntersville, N.C., office.

The EPA has been low-key on its pesticide division restructuring, Heier said. Tierno said he was not aware of the changes.

Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. officials in Washington declined to comment on the new division's impact on plastics because they ``have to look into it further.''

Playskool toys containing Microban are Stack N Scoop Whale, Hourglass, Roll N Rattle Ball, Busy Beads Pal, Pop N Spin, Laptop, Rockin Radio, Sound Around Driver and Animal Sounds Phone.

``Protecting the health of our children is one of our highest priorities,'' EPA Administrator Carol Browner said in a prepared statement.

``While our safety assessments show no evidence that this chemical in toys [poses] a health risk to children, we believe that parents have a right to know that the health claims made about the products they purchase for their children are accurate.''