Fiona Ma for State Assembly

From the mouths of babes: Ban phthalates in kids' toys

Starting in January, California will become the first state to ban toys and other child-care products that contain more than trace amounts of phthalates.

The prohibition of this chemical - used to soften plastics - is hardly radical. Phthalates have been linked to cancer, interference with the natural functioning of the hormone system and reproductive abnormalities.

Even if the science is still evolving, most parents would not want to have phthalate-softened teething rings or toys anywhere near their young children. As we said at the time, the California ban (authored by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year) must become the template for a national law. A mother in Santa Rosa should not have to worry about whether a rubber duck sent by a grandparent in Missouri contains potentially dangerous chemicals.

Fortunately, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is on the case. She recently wrapped a ban on phthalates into the Senate version of a Consumer Product Safety Commission bill.

In a recent interview, Feinstein said she "was kind of appalled" to learn of the pervasiveness of phthalates. In her Senate presentation, she showed a slide of her communication director's 8-month-old son sucking on his favorite book, which she described as "loaded with phthalates." She also cited a 2006 Chronicle investigation in which 16 common children's toys were sent to a Chicago lab for testing. Several were found to contain levels of phthalates at several times the upcoming limit.

"This is really a problem," Feinstein said. The continued use of a suspect chemical is especially outrageous in view of the availability of alternatives. Mattel began phasing out the use of phthalates in teething toys in 1999.

As the senator noted, major retailers that have taken phthalate-softened children's products off their shelves include Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target and Toys "R" Us. The chemicals are outlawed in the European Union, Argentina, Japan, Fiji, Korea and Mexico.

Our children deserve no less protection.

"Now is the time to end the practice of the United States being the dumping ground for toys banned in the rest of the industrialized world," Ma said by phone from Japan, where she is studying high-speed rail.

The fate of Feinstein's amendment (which has been co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.) now rests with a House-Senate conference committee, which must reconcile conflicting versions of the consumer-products legislation.

The House conferees should incorporate the Feinstein amendment into the final bill that will be sent to President Bush. All American children deserve this protection.