WASHINGTON — The battle over vinyl baby toys has broadened, with opponents slinging allegations of fear-mongering, obscene misinformation campaigns and unholy tactics — the type of vitriol one might expect to find on the ``Jerry Springer Show.''
The controversy has escalated sharply in the past couple weeks, embroiling retailers, trade associations, environmental groups and the governments of several nations.
Some say phthalates, a common vinyl plasticizing additive, are dangerous. Others say phthalates are harmless. Some even say that, well, phthalates are OK, but why take a chance?
The upshot? About 90 percent of the makers of teethers and soft rattles say they will remove phthalates from those products by early next year, after U.S. regulators asked them to remove them, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. A growing list of major retailers, including Kmart, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart, have removed from their shelves those vinyl teethers, rattles, pacifiers and bottle nipples made with phthalates.
CPSC said the following toy makers have stopped or will stop using phthalates in teethers and rattles by early 1999: Chicco, Little Tikes, Disney, Mattel, Evenflo, Safety 1st, First Years, Sassy, Gerber, Shelcore Toys and Hasbro.
And that's so far.
The Mexican government recommended Nov. 27 that young children stop using teethers and rattles made with soft PVC. Some Japanese companies are taking steps away from PVC, including Sharp. Co. and Sumitomo Electric Industries, according to the environmental group Greenpeace. And 28 members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter protesting the Clinton administration's lobbying against European restrictions on soft PVC toys.
In the United States, Greenpeace failed in its effort to get the CPSC to ban all vinyl toys and products intended for children under 6. CPSC spokesman Ken Giles said Dec. 2 that the commission bans products only if they pose demonstrated health hazards, and that it lacks evidence to ban phthalates. But still it urged the toy industry to remove the softening chemicals voluntarily from vinyl teethers and rattles.
CPSC stressed that its study of the phthalate known as diisonoyl phthalate, or DINP, found that it does leach from toys, but at a level that ``does not even come close'' to harming children.
``Even if you take the worst case, you do not get to the daily intake level that would be of concern,'' said CPSC's Giles.
But the CPSC said it pushed a voluntary ban as a precaution because studies have found that DINP damages the liver, kidney and other organs in rats at high doses, and that it may cause liver tumors in mice. Scientists are not sure how much of the cancer risk translates to people, the commission said.
CPSC called its work the most comprehensive study to date on phthalates, but said more research is needed into the amount of phthalates released and how long children typically mouth such products. It also said it will appoint a panel of scientists to examine how much of a cancer risk phthalates are to people.
The New York-based Toy Manufacturers of America said the CPSC decision not to require a ban ``validates the position that we've had all along — that the toys are safe.'' But TMA spokeswoman Terri Bartlett said the group disagrees with the agency's push for voluntary phthalate removal.
And she said the toy industry is not likely to respond to a CPSC request to find a substitute for phthalates in all products intended for children under 3 that are likely to be mouthed or chewed. That's because the phthalates, which have been used for 30 years, are safe, she said.
``We all sucked on these items. We're fine.''
A Greenpeace spokesman said the CPSC report confirms that DINP is hazardous, it leaches out of toys and should be restricted as a precaution.
``That type of avoidable risk is unacceptable,'' said Joe Di Gangi, a senior scientist with Greenpeace. ``If you have a safe alternative, why debate it?''
The CPSC study came as the European Commission released an updated study on phthalates Nov. 27. The study increased the margin of safety for DINP, and lowered the margin for another phthalate, di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate, or DEHP.
Both Greenpeace and the European consumer organization BEUC called on the EC again to consider an immediate ban — legislation that stalled during the summer.
David Cadogan, director of the European Council for Plasticisers and Intermediates in Brussels, Belgium, said he did not think that was likely. DEHP is used in ``negligible'' amounts in toys in the United States and Europe, after the United States phased out its use in the mid-1980s, Cadogan said.
Sweden, Denmark and Austria are considering restrictions on soft PVC toys.
California Democrats George Miller and Henry Waxman are among the 28 members of the U.S. Congress who think Europe should decide its own position on the PVC toys. Miller and Waxman wrote the Nov. 18 letter that criticized the Clinton administration for its ``unwarranted intrusion into the ability of other countries to make their own decisions about public health risks.''
The Commerce Department has said it lobbied European governments to not take action against PVC toys without firm scientific evidence.
Meanwhile, the controversy also is bubbling in other countries.
The Canadian government agency Health Canada Nov. 16 urged parents to discard soft vinyl chew toys.
In Mexico, the government's advisory against teethers or rattles made with soft PVC was issued after talks with Greenpeace Mexico.
According to Mexico's federal health ministry, Secretaria de Salud, the country has been studying the effects of certain phthalates for PVC used in toys, and will continue to gather more information.
``No information exists nationally or internationally that states children's health is damaged by these products. Nevertheless, it has been published that the phthalates can be leached from the products in conditions of intensive use,'' the ministry said in a Nov. 27 statement.
Greenpeace Mexico, which met with the ministry's director of environmental health, Gustavo Olaiz, said the director agreed to take certain actions.
``Among the measures announced by Olaiz are: taking these products off the market, stopping their production within Mexico, and not authorizing their import, as well as creating a work group to revise the Mexican norm ... to determine the toxicity of the phthalates,'' said Greenpeace spokesman Roberto Lopez.
However, the government recommendation is completely voluntary at this point, said a member of the Mexican toy industry who asked not to be identified. He also mentioned that the toy association, Asociacion Mexicana de la Industria del Juguete, has been a leader in promoting current regulations in Mexico where toys have to be certified that they are nontoxic before they can be put on the market.
Plastics News Mexico correspondent Joann McKinlay and assistant managing editor Jeannie Reall contributed to this story.