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Buyers at Risk: Christmas Season of Toxic Recalls
Who is out there protecting Americans from these hidden hazards? Practically no one.
December 19, 2007
As we pass through the season of toy recalls into the season of Christmas consumerism, none of the presidential candidates on either side of the aisle have focused on a singular issue that would send a powerful signal of commitment to protecting Americans. The question of ensuring the security of Americans from the hazards to their health contained in hundreds of consumer products hangs like a ripe fruit for any candidate willing to pick it.
Who is out there protecting Americans from these hidden hazards? The answer: practically nobody.
We now know what happens when illegal substances like lead are integrated into toys and shipped to the United States from China: They slip into the country past the eviscerated Consumer Product Safety Commission, whose sole toy inspector spends most of his time making sure toys don't break in children's hands, rather than assessing the toxic substances that may enter into their bodies. In fact, the CPSC's budget has dropped in a more or less inverse proportion to U.S. toy manufacturers sourcing production in China.
Hillary Clinton may have called for greater vigilance of our imports from China, but it's not just illegal substances like lead that are being integrated into an array of consumer products. A host of substances suspected of causing cancer, mutating genes and disrupting the reproductive system are permitted in the United States, while much of the world -- our economic peers in Europe, Japan and even in emerging economies like Korea -- are banning them from use.
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Why poisonous, unregulated chemicals end up in our blood
In the late 1990s, citizens of several European countries learned from newspaper reports that their infants were constantly being exposed to a host of toxic chemicals. Babies were sleeping in pajamas treated with cancer-causing flame retardants; they were sucking on bottles laced with plastic additives believed to alter hormones; their diapers were glued together with nerve-damaging toxins normally used to kill algae on the hulls of ships. When European health officials tried to look into the matter, they were confounded by how little they actually knew about these and other potentially hazardous chemicals. Regulators discovered that they had no way of assessing the dangers of long-term exposure to everyday products. Some manufacturers of baby goods did not even know what was in their own products, since chemical producers were under no obligation to tell them. Such data, if it existed at all, was secreted away in the vaults of chemical companies and had never been submitted to any government authority.
In the years since those news reports, the nascent science of bio-monitoring has provided further insight into how the industrial chemicals that are in clothes, food packaging, cosmetics, toys, electronics, and just about every modern convenience are actually lodging in the human body. Greenpeace U.K. released a study in 2005 that found numerous toxic chemicals in the umbilical-cord blood of European infants. That same year, World Wildlife Fund International tested the blood of three generations of women from twelve European countries. The largest number of chemicals—sixty-three—was found in the group of grandmothers. Given the number of years they had had to accumulate exposure, this result was perhaps not surprising. But the next-highest level was among their grandchildren, aged twelve to twenty-eight, who in their short lifetimes had amassed fifty-nine different toxic chemicals. The blood of a nineteen-year-old Italian, who later sent me her test results, included brominated flame retardants, which are potential liver, thyroid, and neurological toxins that are used to coat many electronics; the pesticides DDT and lindane, the latter of which is suspected of contributing to breast and other cancers; perfluorinated chemicals, known carcinogens that are used as stain- and water-repellents on clothing, furniture, and nonstick cookware; and artificial musk aromas, found in soaps and perfumes, that scientists claim can reduce the body's ability to expel other toxins.
Bio-monitoring tests in the United States have revealed the same dangerous chemicals making their way into the blood of Americans. In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention completed screening for the presence of 148 toxic chemicals in the blood of a broad cross section of Americans; it found that the vast majority of subjects harbored almost all the toxins. In the same year, the CDC's National Survey on Family Growth concluded that rates of infertility were rising for women under the age of twenty-five, a spike many scientists attribute, at least in part, to routine exposure to toxic chemicals. The Environmental Working Group conducted tests on the umbilical cords of ten newborns in 2006 and discovered that cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting, and gene-mutating chemicals had passed from the mothers to their fetuses through the placenta.
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October 18, 2007
Into the playrooms of children has come the unsettling news: those little red trains and other neat miniatures of the adult world may be coated in paint containing illegally high levels of lead, posing myriad risks to a child's neurological development. After that discovery prompted a mass recall this past summer, parents will never look at Thomas the Tank Engine the same way again. But the uproar over banned substances and rogue Chinese toy manufacturers has overshadowed an even more troubling issue: the toxins in toys that are perfectly legal. The United States remains one of the few developed countries to permit the import of plastic toys made with polyvinyl chloride additives called phthalates (pronounced tha-lates), which help make toys soft and pliable enough to be twisted or sucked yet durable enough to survive a 1-year-old's grip. A mounting body of scientific evidence suggests that phthalates impede the production of testosterone and disrupt the sexual development of infant boys.
That disturbing claim certainly caught my attention as I sat in a hearing room in the California Capitol January 10, 2006, and watched two of America's leading experts on the physiological effects of chemical exposure testify before the health committee of the State Assembly. Such hearings are normally dry affairs, but the scientists' allegations that children were gnawing and sucking on toy animals and other doodads that decrease production of the male sexual hormone gave the testimony a certain urgency. The experts had been called in by Democratic Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, author of a bill to ban phthalates from children's toys; the bill had been met by powerful opposition from the toy and plastics industries.
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