The soft vinyl toy debate, a long-simmering hot potato for the plastics industry, has exploded in the past 10 days.
It started with the Nov. 13 announcement that the American Council on Science and Health will form a committee to review phthalate plasticizers' safety. A few hours later, major retailer Toys R Us said it would remove phthalate-containing teethers, rattles, pacifiers and similar products from the shelves of its 1,484 stores worldwide by Nov. 18.
On Nov. 16 Canadian federal department Health Canada issued an advisory for parents to discard soft vinyl chewable toys because the plasticizer DINP could pose a health risk. Next, Greenpeace — a vociferous opponent to all vinyl applications — said on Nov. 19 that it is petitioning the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban all vinyl toys for children under six years of age.
Greenpeace also said it would sue by Christmas toy companies in California that continue selling children's vinyl products containing lead or cadmium.
Industry reacted swiftly to the barrage. The Chemical Manufacturers Association reiterated there is no scientific basis to take regulatory action against phthalate esters in vinyl toys. It cited a recent report by the Dutch Consensus Group that said children would not likely be harmed by DINP in toys.
The Vinyl Institute issued a statement attacking Greenpeace for ``poisoning the minds of American parents.''
``As we enter the Christmas season, to create unfounded fear in the mothers and fathers of America is as unholy a tactic as the group has ever used,'' said Robert Burnett, VI executive director.
The Toy Manufacturers of America also attacked Greenpeace for spreading ``scientific half-truths.''
``The fact is, after half a century of using vinyl in toys, there is no evidence that a single child has been harmed by the use of plastic softeners in toys,'' the New York association said in a prepared statement.
The Vinyl Institute welcomed the ACSH phthalates committee because ``it will look at the science and our position will be borne out,'' Burnett said in a telephone interview. The committee will be chaired by former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop.
``We know that people want to hear from independent scientists and physicians on important safety issues,'' said ACSH President Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. ``The committee's report will provide an authoritative point of view on the safety of phthalates in vinyl products.''
Health Canada's advisory forced Canadian industry to soften its position on vinyl infant toys. The Vinyl Council of Canada advised its members to replace DINP temporarily in soft teethers and rattles for children weighing less than 18 pounds. VCC also called for an independent, international panel of scientific experts to establish global standards for soft vinyl toys.
The Retail Council of Canada urged its members to remove from store shelves teethers and rattles that might have DINP in them.
The precautionary measure will reassure parents, RCC said in a news release.
The Canadian Toy Association said scientific evidence supports safe use of DINP. But it, too, recommended that manufacturers temporarily use other plasticizers.
Major toy makers have begun to replace phthalate and vinyl combinations in chewable infant toys. Little Tikes Co. is adopting a polyolefin blend for chewable toys and is planning nonphthalate compounds for other toys that infants often put in their mouths, said spokeswoman Patti Bauch. Mattel Inc. will replace phthalate compounds by next spring, although it has yet to decide what replacements it will use.
Gerber Products Co., heavily dependent on infant markets, is phasing out phthalates for vinyl toys and baby-care products, said spokeswoman Malesia Webb-Dunn. It makes toys in the United States and in the Far East. Webb-Dunn could not predict the impact of the phthalates backlash on her firm, but it will be mitigated by Gerber's use of silicone or rubber in many infant products. Numerous toys made by Gerber and other companies are on Health Canada's list of about 60 ``safe soft vinyl products.''
Several industry officials interviewed declined to condemn the Toys R Us recall, saying the retailer is responding to market pressures sparked by Greenpeace and other organizations.
``Although there has been no definitive scientific evidence that supports removal of these products, customer concern and the actions by some manufacturers to phase out of phthalates have led us to this decision,'' Robert Nakasone, Toys R Us chief executive officer, said in a Nov. 13 news release.
Media reports have fueled much of parents' concerns about phthalates. Among the most damning was a Nov. 13 segment of ABC News' ``20/20'' program that questioned their safety. The segment aired about 21/2 hours after Toys R Us announced its removal of phthalate-based chewables from its shelves.
Industry representatives said the timing of those events would not hit toy makers hard as the Christmas buying season begins. Consumers generally buy chewable toys when infants begin developing teeth, a process that occurs throughout the year.
Greenpeace is joined by 11 other organizations in its petition to CPSC to ban vinyl toys and other products aimed at children 5 years of age or younger.
The organizations include religious groups, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Learning Disabilities Association.