When the Danish government learned about toxic chemicals leaking from certain baby toys, it moved to get polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic out of teething rings, rubber ducks, and other toys kids can chew on. The Netherlands, Germany, and Austria followed suit, and the Spanish government even asked the European Union to ban PVC from such children's items. But last week the European Commission decided not to enact a temporary ban. Why not?
The answer is a little bit of science and a whole lot of economic diplomacy by the U.S. Department of Commerce, prodded by U.S. toy manufacturers like Mattel (maker of Barbie) and PVC producers like Exxon. In memos obtained by Greenpeace last month, the big corporations express their gratitude to the U.S. government for helping them to quash the European bannever mind the question of whether their products are poisonous to children.
In a letter to Commerce Secretary William Daley, Mattel thanks the department for its "aggressive" and "invaluable" help in thwarting the ban on PVC toys: "These Commerce efforts played a major role in a decision last week by the [EU] to postpone a vote on imposing a ban on PVC toys. Had [Commerce] not been there to take charge of this matter in the last few months, the U.S. toy industry interests would have been seriously jeopardized." Proposals to ban PVC toys, the letter explains, "threaten a European market that is of major importance to Mattel and other U.S. toy companies.... In 1997, toy sales by Mattel alone in Europe exceeded $1 billion."
In a fax transmitting that letter, Mattel trade consultant Tom St. Maxens, a former official with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, asks the Commerce Department for advice on lobbying Congress. "Please let us know if Commerce's congressional affairs staff believe it also would be helpful for Mattel to contact the appropriations committees directly." St. Maxens is not a registered lobbyist.
And in an internal cable, a department official congratulates Commerce staff in Europe for their timely influence on the European Commission: "We are told by Exxon Chemical Europe Inc. that the input [of Commerce staff] was very effective and the weigh-in was invaluable."
EC members apparently were moved by the U.S. lobbying; on July 1 they tabled the ban despite the findings of their own scientific advisers that the toys leaked dangerous and unacceptable amounts of toxics.
The chief alarm about PVC safety concerns the chemical softeners that make it flexible for children's toys. These additives, called phthalates, leak from PVC products when pressure is applied. In laboratory tests done by independent American and European laboratories, the main phthalates used in toys were found to damage the liver, kidneys, and reproductive system when ingested by animals. Based on the findings of the Danish and Dutch governments and others, the EC Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment issued an opinion this year that soft PVC toys leak phthalates up to 10 times in excess of the limits set by the EC Scientific Committee for Food.
Toymakers and PVC suppliers say there's not enough scientific evidence that the toys are harming children, but governments are taking precautions anyway. To date, Belgium, Italy, the Philippines, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, and Spain have have either proposed bans for PVC toys, urged toy manufacturers to stop manufacturing them, or recommended that retailers withdraw them from stores.
Despite the existence of alternative plastics which don't require pthalates, most toy companies are reluctant to convert, says Rick Hind of Greenpeace, because "PVC is dirt cheap."
Some scientists want to work on finding safer additives to PVC instead of banning it altogether, but Greenpeace disagrees. The group would like to see PVC phased out of all consumer products because it generates hazardous waste when produced, releases dioxins when burned, and cannot be easily recycled because it releases hydrochloric acid, damaging recycling equipment. Less than one percent of PVC is ever recycled.
The agenda against PVC is part of Greenpeace's general campaign against the industrial use of chlorine, and right now, according to Hind, more than 40 percent of the chlorine market goes into PVC. "Twenty-five years ago, there was hardly any PVC around," says Hind. "Now it's everywhere. PVC is the unnecessary polluting product that we've done without for hundreds of thousands of years, and we can do without it in the future."
For now, further EU action against PVC toys will be delayed until the completion of experiments in which adult human volunteers will suck on soft PVC to find out how much of the toxic stuff shows up in their saliva. Greenpeace is suspicious of the tests because the data may not be applicable to children, and because Exxon, the world's largest producer of phthalates, is providing tailor-made samples for them.