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Health Canada to restrict chemicals in baby toys

VANCOUVER - The federal government has announced that it will follow the lead of the European Union and the United States and prohibit the use of phthalates in toys and other products for babies and toddlers.

The government is also proposing new restrictions on lead in baby products and in products used by people of any age that come into contact with the mouth.

Phthalates are of concern because of animal testing indicating they can lead to development problems by disrupting the endocrine (hormone) system.

When The Tyee asked environmental consultant and author Bruce Lourie, last month, what consumers should do about chemicals in everyday products, they were the first thing he mentioned.

“Avoid phthalates,” said Lourie. “They are in what we call plastic, but it's really vinyl. Ask what's in the product, and find alternatives.”

Phthalates are added to vinyl to make it soft and flexible, like a “rubber” toy, instead of brittle like a vinyl album. They are also used to make scents last longer.

Draft regulations for phthalates and lead are published in Saturday's Canada Gazette. The restrictions are being introduced under the existing Hazardous Product Act, but will migrate to the proposed Consumer Products Safety Act if that legislation (Bill C-6) is passed by the Senate. The bill was passed by the House of Commons last week.

The phthalate regulations would apply to six types of the chemical. They would be restricted from use at levels greater than 0.1 per cent (by weight) in all toys or childcare items likely to be used by children under three years old.

The European Union has restricted the use of phthalates in toys and childcare articles since 1998, although the ban has been modified and extended since then.

Last year, the United States Congress passed legislation that effectively mirrors the European prohibitions. The U.S. ban came into effect in February of this year.

The regulation of phthalates has focused on baby products because of the tendency of babies and toddlers to suck on items, because the same amount of chemical has a proportionately higher impact on a baby's small body, and because baby's developing bodies may be more susceptible to endocrine disruption.

For these reasons, North American industry voluntarily stopped using the chemicals in teethers and baby bottle nipples in the late 1990s. The federal government warned manufacturers they could be liable for legal damages if they did use phthalates in these products.

The proposed Canadian regulations would formalize that restriction and expand it to all other items intended for babies or toddlers.

However, phthalates are used in many other products -- notably cosmetics -- to which pregnant women or children may be exposed.

Health Canada is conducting a study on phthalate exposure from cosmetics, a spokesperson told The Tyee. Initial results are expected late this year; final data would be published in 2010.

The government “would take appropriate action” if the results of the study show that exposure levels are high enough to cause possible health risks, he said.

The same spokesperson said that phthalates were not listed as ingredients in any toiletry products marketed to children.

One type of phthalate, DEHP, has recently been added to a Health Canada “hit list” of substances that are banned from use in cosmetics.

DEHP has been considered “toxic” under Canadian environmental legislation since 1994, but two other types of phthalates (BBP and DBP) studied under the same law were declared not toxic, and there was not enough information to make a decision on another (DNOP). As a result, up until now the government has been hesitant to restrict their use.

A chemical industry association responded to the proposed regulations by saying:

There is no scientific basis to believe that Health Canada's decision to restrict certain phthalates in children's products will improve public health... . Phthalates have a long history of safe use and have been extensively reviewed by governments around the world.

The new regulations on lead-containing products are part of an ongoing risk reduction strategy for lead in consumer products.

The proposed limit on lead -- a maximum of 90mg lead per kilogram of material -- represents a nearly seven-fold decrease in the current limits for baby articles and toys. The limits on other mouth-contact items, such as mouthpieces on musical instruments or sports equipment, are new.

Kitchen utensils and dishes are excluded from the current proposal, although different limits are under consideration.

The public has 75 days to comment on either sets of draft regulations before they can be finalized.

Amelia Bellamy-Royds reports for The Tyee.

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