Chemicals of high concern' found in thousands of children's products

Cobalt in plastic building blocks and baby bibs. Ethylene glycol in dolls. Methyl ethyl ketone in clothing. Antimony in high chairs and booster seats. Parabens in baby wipes. D4 in baby creams.

An Environmental Health News analysis of thousands of reports from America’s largest companies shows that toys and other children’s products contain low levels of dozens of industrial chemicals, including some unexpected ingredients that will surprise a public concerned about exposure.

The reports were filed by 59 large companies, including Gap Inc., Mattel Inc., Gymboree Corp., Nike Inc., H&M and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., to comply with an unprecedented state law.

Stronger than any other chemical disclosure law in the United States, Washington state’s Children's Safe Product Act, enacted in 2008, has changed the right-to-know game around the country. For the first time, since September of last year, consumers have access to a searchable, online databaserevealing which companies report “chemicals of high concern” in products made or marketed for children.

The 66 chemicals, gleaned from lists compiled by U.S. and international agencies, were chosen because studies have linked them to cancer or to reproductive, developmental or neurological effects in animals or people.

In most cases, no one knows what, if anything, exposure to small doses of these chemicals may do to people, especially babies and toddlers who tend to chew on items or rub them on their skin. For many of these compounds, there has been little or no research to investigate children’s exposure to them.

But some health experts worry about unknown risks because it is now clear that dozens of chemicals untested for potential health effects are found in everyday items, such as clothing, footwear, furniture and toys.

"Children are uniquely vulnerable to exposures given their hand-to-mouth behaviors, floor play and developing nervous and reproductive systems," said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatric researcher at the University of Washington and the Seattle Children's Research Institute who advised state officials when they wrote the disclosure rules.

Manufacturers say the presence of a chemical in a product does not mean it is harmful to human health or that any safety standard is being violated.

"If a substance on the Washington state list is found in a toy or game, it doesn't automatically mean there is a risk or cause for concern. There may be no exposure to the substance whatsoever," said Alan Kaufman, senior vice president of technical affairs for the Toy Industry Association.

Officials with the state agency agree. "Simply the presence of a chemical in a product does not really say it’s causing harm to anyone," said Alex Stone, a chemist in the Washington Department of Ecology and part of the team that wrote the regulations.

Nevertheless, trying to get to the bottom of hidden chemicals in children's products was the driving force behind Washington's pioneering law. The Legislature enacted it in the wake of recalls of lead-tainted Thomas the Train sets and Sesame Street’s Elmo, among others.

Shoppers cannot look up specific toys and other items, but they can see which companies report chemicals in general categories of products. There are hundreds of searchable product types, such as train sets, clothing, baby bibs and dolls. Consumers also can search by chemicals.

Seattle mother Rachel Koller, who campaigned for the law, said she tries to avoid buying products for her 5-year-old daughter that contain certain chemicals. But most compounds don't have to be included on ingredient lists, so there is little information available. She said the new database helps, although it raises lots of unanswered questions about risks.

“We use the research we have, and make the best decisions," Koller said.

The first reporting, due last August, required companies with gross annual revenues of $1 billion to report chemicals in products that could be put into the mouth by children under 3 years old, and those intended to be put in the mouth or rubbed on the skin for children under 12 years old. The second reporting, due last February, included products intended for prolonged contact with the skin, including clothing, jewelry and bedding. Reporting by smaller companies comes next August.

The new law already is driving changes in products. Some companies, including Wal-Mart, Gap, Nike and VF Corp., have filed documents with the state stating that they would eliminate some chemicals on the list.

Nike, Lego Systems, Gap and Wal-Mart did not respond to EHN's requests for comment. In e-mail messages, Gymboree stressed that all of its products met or exceeded federal and state safety requirements, while H&M said it meets all standards and that it works to limit, and find substitutes for, hazardous chemicals. Mattel referred calls to the Toy Industry Association.

Cobalt rises to the top

Cobalt, an element used in many blue dyes and other pigments, turns out to be a favorite with manufacturers. Surprisingly, it was the most commonly reported substance, turning up so far in 1,228 individual products in 40 different categories.

Lego reported cobalt in the pigment of some plastic building blocks, while Mattel reported it as a surface coloration in a powered ride-on toy, drawing boards and role-play toys. Cobalt and its compounds also were reported in pigments and inks of baby feeding bibs sold by Gap and Gymboree, and in synthetic baby changing mats by the VF Corp., which represents two dozen brands, including Nautica, Wrangler and JanSport. New Balance and other companies used cobalt in surface coatings as well as in synthetic polymers and textiles of footwear.

Traces of cobalt have been found in the urine of nearly all children and adults tested in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The sources are unknown, however.

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Source: environmental health news