WASHINGTON — In what appears to be a U-turn for U.S. trade policy on phthalates in PVC toys, Vice President Al Gore has told the government to stop lobbying against European restrictions on the chemicals.
The Commerce Department last year urged European countries not to restrict phthalates. But Gore's Dec. 21 letter reverses that and gives some high-profile praise to a Consumer Product Safety Commission effort to limit phthalates.
``The president and I have made it clear that the departments of Commerce and State should refrain from any actions to discourage individual countries ... from implementing precautionary measures they deem appropriate to restrict the marketing or the use of products containing phthalates,'' the letter said.
``We recognize and respect each nation's right to set legitimate public health and environmental standards and to take appropriate precautionary action,'' the vice president wrote.
The U.S. government last year wrote letters to the European Union protesting proposed restrictions, and sent cables to its offices in Europe urging them to speak out against such bans. Commerce Department officials said at the time there was not credible evidence to support limits.
A Commerce spokesman had no immediate comment. Gore's office did not return calls.
U.S. pressure on European countries was decisive in convincing the EU to back away from the restrictions it debated over the summer, said Rick Hind, a toxins campaigner with Greenpeace in Washington. Some EU officials want to take another look at the issue, he said.
Several European countries individually are considering restrictions on phthalates in vinyl toys.
Gore's letter praised a Dec. 2 CPSC report for taking the precautionary step of urging manufacturers to remove phthalates. CPSC said it did not find any evidence of a health risk, but 90 percent of teether and soft-rattle makers responded by dropping phthalates. Phthalates soften vinyl.
Gore also said he will ensure CPSC has enough money, but CPSC spokesman Ken Giles said, ``I am not aware we need additional money.'' The agency can perform the additional research it wants with current funding, he said.
The letter was written to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in response to a letter Miller and 27 other members of Congress wrote to President Clinton in November. Miller released the letter Jan. 8.
Miller spokesman Daniel Weiss said Gore's letter makes it clear that ``few people are comfortable with where the Consumer Product Safety Commission left off.'' Parents should not be alarmed, but more research on phthalates is needed, he said.
Gore's letter also directs federal agencies to make research a high priority. For example, it tells the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to look at aggregate phthalate exposure from sources other than consumer products, and research the effects of phthalate substitutes.
An NIEHS administrator said his agency has a large research program on the risk to humans and how well studies on rats translate to people. The danger of aggregate exposure may not be great because phthalates do not remain in the human body for very long, said John Bucher, deputy director of the NIEHS environmental toxicology program.
The Vinyl Institute, a unit of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., said it welcomed the additional research.
``We're confident that the research will confirm our belief that these products are safe, and in that case would go a long way toward clarifying this small bit of doubt or concern that CPSC seems to have,'' said Mark Sofman, manager of industry affairs for Morristown, N.J.-based VI.