Fresh squeeze on PVC industry over phthalates in baby products

The PVC industry has been dealt a fresh blow after leading Scandinavian retailers withdrew PVC baby products and soft toys from their shelves following an official study in Denmark which found that high levels of some phthalates migrate from baby teething rings. European toy manufacturers are under pressure to follow suit - and two leading UK retailers have promised urgent reviews to identify if their baby products contain phthalates.

Last year, growing evidence linking some phthalates to hormone disruption prompted several UK retailers to establish an informal group to investigate the environmental and health effects of PVC (ENDS Report 257, p 25 ). Members include Tesco, Superdrug, Asda, Somerfield, Lloyds Chemists and the Co-op. The responses of some to the developments in Scandinavia suggest that they have made little progress.

The events in Scandinavia were triggered by a recommendation in April by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that three baby teething rings made by the Italian company Chicco should be withdrawn from the market.

The EPA commissioned research institute DMU to analyse 11 randomly selected teething rings for phthalates, which are used to soften PVC. Two - Chicco's Le Positone and Softy Vinyl Sweets - released phthalates in amounts "far above" the limits for daily consumption set by the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Food. Although the third product - Chicco Softy Little Hand - released phthalates below the tolerable daily intake set by the Committee, the EPA also recommended its withdrawal because it released six different phthalates.

All teething rings made from soft PVC have since been withdrawn from the Danish market. Danish retailer FDB has gone further by withdrawing all of its soft PVC products for babies and small children, while Sweden's biggest retailer, KF, has withdrawn about 50 such products from its hypermarkets and toy store chain. KF has already spent two years phasing out PVC from part of its product range.

Chicco has also withdrawn soft PVC teething rings from Italy, Spain and Greece. The company told ENDS that the products are not sold in the UK.

John Svalander, Director of the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers (ECVM), questioned the "basis and validity" of the DMU's research. "We must emphasise that there is no evidence nor scientific grounds to support the view that phthalates may pose a human health problem," he told ENDS. Nevertheless, he stressed that the phthalate levels found in the tests were specific to just three of the eleven teething rings.

The ECVM referred to just one compound, di(isononyl) phthalate, as "the one used in these toys", whereas six different phthalates were detected. Among them were dibutyl phthalate and butyl benzyl phthalate, which have both displayed oestrogenic effects in cell assays (ENDS Report 255, pp 5-6 ).

The Danish EPA's recommendations will spur Greenpeace's campaign against PVC toys. Last year, the group met representatives of the International Council of Toy Industries to discuss the issue, but contact was broken off earlier this year. "Once they decided they didn't want to take it any further, the door was open for lots of other things," the group's toy campaigner, Lisa Finaldi, told ENDS.

A few weeks after these discussions ended, the British Toy and Hobby Association published a briefing paper on PVC. This says that the material is "durable, easy to keep clean and because it is chemically inert, can be put in the hands of small children without fear." This description bears an uncanny resemblance to that sent to ENDS by the ECVM, which says that the plastic is "durable, easy to keep clean...is chemically inert and poses no danger to children of any age."

The toy industry's European federation, Toy Manufacturers of Europe (TME), is concerned by the events in Scandinavia. Representatives will discuss the issue with their US counterparts in New York at the World Toy Conference early in June. Maurits Bruggink, TME's Secretary General, confirmed that such well known products as Barbie dolls contain PVC and phthalates, but added: "one thing we don't want to do is to give a list of products containing PVC - it would pour oil on the flames."

In the UK, Sainsbury has responded by promising to review all of its branded plastic baby products to identify which contain phthalates, and to alert the manufacturers to the Danish EPA's recommendations. The firm does not sell teething rings.

Superdrug's Commercial Director, Chris Ash, told ENDS that the company is "urgently consulting all of our branded and own brand product suppliers, to find out whether or not any of our baby products contain PVC with phthalates. If we find that we do stock products containing this ingredient, we will immediately review the affected ranges."

Mothercare told ENDS that it does not sell PVC teething rings. All of its branded products were checked for high levels of phthalates more than three years ago, without any problems. Boots - which told ENDS last year that it had set up a working group on oestrogenic chemicals - and Tesco failed to comment.

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