There are a lot of ways to look at the Consumer Product Safety Commission's decision last month to urge toy makers to remove phthalates from some soft PVC chew toys.
It's an illustration of how sound bites can replace sound scientific policy. It's also an illustration of how toy makers and the vinyl industry were outmaneuvered.
First, CPSC's decision shows how it can come down squarely on both sides of an issue.
It announced it could find no health risks to children from diisonoyl phthalate, or DINP. Even in a worst-case scenario, kids cannot absorb enough DINP to be in danger, the agency said.
However, CPSC followed that with the seemingly contradictory step of urging toy makers to remove phthalates from teethers and soft rattles. About 90 percent of the industry complied.
The CPSC's argument goes like this: Caution is warranted because there is evidence that DINP damages the liver, kidney and other organs in rats, and it causes liver tumors in mice. The agency said there's some debate about whether those results are relevant to people.
The commission has a long history with phthalates. In 1986, it urged manufacturers to stop using a cousin of DINP — DEHP — in some toys because of concerns about health effects.
Interpreting science can be dangerous for the 99 percent of the population who are not scientists, including journalists. But it seems more like ``policy by sound bite'' when you blacklist a product when even your own studies do not find any evidence of children being harmed.
Obviously, in a contest of public opinion involving children, toys, tumors in mice and an unpronounceable chemical, the chemical usually can't win.
But the industries involved also were outmaneuvered. Six months ago, the issue of phthalates and toys was raging in Europe, but barely a blip in the United States.
That changed in no small part because of Greenpeace. Despite being racked by budget cuts and fund-raising problems in the United States, the organization kept pursuing the issue and eventually prevailed.
The vinyl industry may like to remind itself that it has life-saving medical applications, or provides products that make life better. But the public at large doesn't care a whole lot about that, particularly if faced with reports of government recalls and liver problems in rats from the stuff in a kid's pacifier.
Tough to fight that battle. But the toy industry and the vinyl industry were unprepared for how quickly the argument moved, and could not mount an effective campaign. The vinyl industry did launch ads in November touting the benefits of vinyl, but in this case at least, it's too little, too late.