Moves by Mattel Inc. and Little Tikes Co. are casting another shadow on the future of flexible vinyl use in infant products.
Mattel is phasing out phthalates in chewable toys for children under 3 years old, and Little Tikes is going a step further by replacing PVC in similar products. The companies are taking the initiative voluntarily to sidestep concerns among some consumers and governments.
Mattel spokesman Sean Fitzgerald said there is no evidence that phthalates could harm children, but there also is no evidence the additives are harmless.
``We want to adopt the high road and remove ourselves from the debate,'' Fitzgerald said in an interview from Mattel's head office in El Segundo, Calif. ``We're responding to concerns from all sectors.''
Mattel announced it will begin shipping phthalate-free toys worldwide in the first quarter of 1999. It is seeking substitutes for phthalates, such as materials used in food packaging or as food thickeners, and is working on alternatives.
The firm even is considering the option of dropping PVC altogether from chewing toys.
Mattel manufactures most of its infant chewing toys in Southeast Asia. Fitzgerald said such toys are a small but important part of its sales.
Little Tikes will replace vinyl in its line of teething toys by the end of the year.
Little Tikes spokeswoman Patti Bauch said her firm has been working on vinyl alternatives for several months and will choose a polyolefin blend for infant chewing toys.
She said Little Tikes makes the toys in Southeast Asia and they are not a big part of the firm's sales.
``We believe phthalates are safe, but we are being proactive to address consumers' concerns,'' Bauch said from Little Tikes headquarters in Hudson, Ohio.
Her firm had not made a formal announcement of the plan to switch.
The Toy Manufacturers of America has not changed its stance on vinyl toys, according to spokeswoman Terri Bartlett.
``Science points to the safety of these products,'' Bartlett said from TMA's office in New York.
Mattel's announcement came less than two weeks after Sweden said it was considering a ban on phthalates in infant toys, which would make it the third European country to ban the plasticizer in such applications. Less than three months ago the European Commission made its member countries responsible for monitoring phthalates in vinyl toys while it works to develop legislation.
Vinyl Institute manager of industry affairs, Mark Sofman, said he was surprised by Mattel's Sept. 23 announcement. He said a Dutch study recently showed phthalates are safe in chewable toys.
The long-awaited Dutch government-sponsored study of phthalate migration, released Sept. 22, concluded that in most cases, children are not at risk of ingesting dangerous levels of the chemicals from soft PVC toys.
The study, the first to use human volunteers, seems likely to stall any call at the European Union to ban phthalates, said David Cadogan, spokesman for the European Council for Plasticizers and Intermediates in Brussels, Belgium.
The EU still is developing legislation but seems more likely to enact safety standards and use the Dutch study to develop a standard test method, regulating phthalates like any other chemical, Cadogan said.
Both industry and Greenpeace sources said the study concludes that children under 12 months could exceed safety limits in extreme cases and children over 12 months are not at risk.
Greenpeace criticized the study, arguing that it cannot be used to predict chemical leaching because of varying testing methods.
The group also claimed the study was dominated by industry representatives, and that it did not include other sources of exposure such as food.
Cadogan said the study did account for other sources.
A preliminary Austrian study released this week recommends exploring a phaseout of phthalates because of the variety of leaching rates in studies, Greenpeace said.
Mattel's initiative could convince other toy manufacturers to drop phthalates because the company said it will share information on its substitutes.
``This is not being done for competitiveness,'' Fitzgerald stressed.
Greenpeace spokeswoman Lisa Finaldi said the actions by Mattel and Little Tikes are encouraging, but are only a small step to protect children's health. She also wondered about the safety of substitutes.
Greenpeace will consider partnering with Mattel in toy issues, Finaldi said from her office in Raleigh, N.C.
About a month ago, Nike Inc. said it plans to phase out vinyl because of environmental concerns.
Nike does not use large amounts of vinyl in its footwear and other products.