You have probably heard that you should avoid vinyl toys. Why you should avoid softened plastic toys is a horror story of 20th-century wonder chemicals gone wrong. As parents, governments, merchants, and others become more aware of the far-reaching effects of chemicals that act as hormone disruptors, they are taking action.
We are still in the middle of that action. There isn’t an ending to the story yet, but we know enough to avoid certain kinds of toys and other baby products in particular. We will undoubtedly learn more in time, and we will strengthen our response and our resolve to rid our families of these chemicals.
Bisphenol A and Phthalates
Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are two different types of chemicals. Because they act in similar ways on the body and are sometimes used in similar ways in children’s products, I’m including both here. They are materials that are used to make plastics: BPA into polycarbonate plastics (durable, transparent, and impact resistant) and phthalates into polyvinyl chloride (PVC, which we commonly call vinyl) and other plastics to make them soft and pliable.
You can find polycarbonate plastics in clear and hard toys, like windows in toy trucks or the clear ball for a push popcorn popper. These are made from BPA. When you look for the identification of the plastics, these are Type 7 plastics.
You can find vinyl in a variety of soft toys from teething rings to so-called rubber ducks, the plastic substitutes for the real natural rubber ducks. These are made with plasticizers called phthalates, at least they were until recently. These are Type 3 plastics, which may leach BPA and phthalates.
- Material > product
- Bisphenol A > polycarbonate plastics
- Phthalates > vinyl plastics
Concern with both BPA and vinyl is, quite simply, that they cause hormone disruption. This is where we meet the horror of our wonder plastics in the shape of birth defects in humans, sex-change fish, then a host of reproductive issues in humans including reproductive system abnormalities in baby boys, high rates of miscarriages among adult women, and erectile disfunction among adult men.
The Environmental Working Group, in their extensive reports on BPA, phthalates, and hormone disruptors, writes,
“Few chemicals have been found to consistently display such a diverse range of harm at such low doses.”
Check Our Stolen Future, the Environmental Working Group, and many major organizations working to reduce the toxic burden on our bodies and our world for specific studies linked to specific chemicals.
You are less likely to find either BPA or phthalates in children’s items in the future. The new U.S. Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) bans six of the worst phthalates from children’s products used for feeding or sleep—items a baby is likely to suck on. Bans and cautions have moved much further with BPA. Health Canada is looking into the risk of BPA in polycarbonate baby products, and major international retailers in Canada (Toys R Us and Walmart) have or are planning to cease sales of baby products with BPA. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has begun evaluation of BPA and related chemicals and will make plans for these chemicals public next month.
Any endocrine disruptor is of greatest concern when the child sucks or chews on the item. The focus is now on feeding and sucking items (like sippy cups and pacifiers), but parents know that babies suck on their toys as well. These materials leach from the plastics and are ingested. They don’t even have to leach, if the baby is chewing up the plastics and swallowing.
You know the short-term answer to this problem: natural toys. Untreated natural wooden toys have no plasticizers, no BPA, and no other plastic ingredients. Organic cotton chew toys give the baby the kind of resist they need to press against sore gums, and they have the added bonus of absorbing a lot of the drool a teething baby makes.
There are so many cases of using materials for baby products and other products without fully understanding the consequences of the material. Why do we do this to ourselves? Are we really convinced that newer is better? Often, it seems that the answer is: simpler is better. Is it unlikely that you will find environmental organizations dedicated to investigating the consequences of organic cotton toys for children. You know it won’t happen. Why not just choose safe natural baby toys and baby feeding items to start with?
The long-term answer really needs to lead us to a massive evaluation of the synthetic materials and processed materials we allow into our lives and incorporate into our bodies and the bodies of our children.