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Taking Toys to TSCA

As of late July, 2011, both the United States and Europe are taking a new look at children’s exposure to chemicals.

On July 21, the Inspector General of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a quiet evaluation report on EPA’s Voluntary Chemical Evaluation Program pilot* – and gave the program a thumbs-down.

The report was released with a letter of summary from the Inspector General himself.  The documents say that EPA’s Voluntary Chemical Evaluation Program pilot under Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) did not achieve its goals, which included designing a process to assess and report on the safety of chemicals for children.

EPA dropped the ball, says study

Has EPA let U.S. children down? In a succinct letter addressed to Steve Owens, Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins, Jr. pointed out a few facts about children’s exposure to chemicals.

“Children eat more, drink more, and breathe more than adults in proportion to their body weight,” said Elkins. “Children’s exposures to environmental pollutants are often different from those of adults because they engage in different activities, such as playing on floors and in soil and mouthing of their hands, toys, and other objects that can bring them into greater contact with environmental pollutants.”

EPA regulates chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which includes no provisions that enable EPA to act specifically on children’s health concerns.  For instance, since 1999, six phthalates have been restricted for use in toys in the European Union, and at least 14 other countries have banned these phthalates in children’s toys. Yet EPA has no restriction.

Further, the report says EPA has not demonstrated it can achieve children’s health goals with a voluntary program.  Programmatic effectiveness was hampered by both industry partners who chose not to voluntarily collect and submit information and EPA’s decision not to exercise its regulatory authorities under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to compel data collection.

The report recommends that EPA design and implement a new product stewardship-oriented process to assess the safety of chemicals to children.  Manufacturers should have keener chemical list management, including reporting capabilities and motivation.  This proposed new process would:

  • identify the chemicals with highest potential risk to children
  • apply the Toxic Substances Control Act regulatory authorities as appropriate for data collection
  • interpret results and disseminate information to the public
  • include outcome measures that assure valid and timely results

Europe plays hardball

While a new legal framework in the European Union (EU) was enacted in 2009 to replace the old Toy Safety Directive of 1988, Member States had until July 20, 2011, to implement processes so they could effectively enforce the measure.

A “toy” in the European usage means “any product or material designed or clearly intended for use in play by children of less than 14 years of age.”   Younger bodies are still in developmental stages and are thus more vulnerable to long term effects of poisons and toxics.

The replacement directive affects any company hoping to make, source from or distribute products for children in the EU and ensures that toys sold and used in Europe don’t present health hazards to kids.

Specifically, the new EU toy-oriented framework targets:

  • toys or toy parts that may result in choking or suffocating as a consequence of swallowing or inhaling
  • toys in or co-mingled with food — a la Cracker Jacks — must always be in a separate packaging
  • toys that can be accessed only after the food surrounding them is actually consumed — this design is now prohibited
  • toys or baby bottles with phthalates, chemical substances which make plastic softer, and which may seriously damage kidneys and liver
  • toys that contain flame retardant chemicals causing alterations in the nervous system, possible negative effects on growth, and permanent endocrine system damages

European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani, responsible for industry and entrepreneurship in the EU, said, “Safety for our children is our first priority. It is not sufficient to strengthen the rules. We also need Member States to ensure enhanced market surveillance deterring fraudulent market operators.”

The European Commission has prepared a toy safety guide containing recommendations for consumers on how to protect their children from toy-related risks.

Regulatory ball and chain

In the U.S., because of this lack of a federal level legislation, parameters on safety for children’s toys are typically state-by-state rather than nationwide.  Washington, for instance, recently identified 59 chemicals of concern for children.  California banned a few phthalates.  Maine passed the Kids Safe Act in 2008.

Manufacturers must track a bill of materials for parts and what goods go where – just in the U.S., never mind for Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia.  It’s dizzying.

The tangled webs we weave of toy safety regulations make a person almost long for a global umbrella compliance standard on chemicals in children’s products and adults’ products alike.  Most believe that’s unlikely in practice.  Perhaps. If not a universal compliance code, then, implementing and enforcing a standard in the U.S. would be a excellent start.

K.M. Hurley is an award-winning writer, environmental regulations adviser, and Director at Actio Corp.

*For more on the report on EPA’s Voluntary Chemical Evaluation Program pilot under Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), click here.

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