Tips for Safe Toys and other Household Products

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The growing movement to restrict suspect chemicals in toys, baby bottles and other items used by pregnant women and children under three, has left parents wondering what they can do on their own to limit their kids' exposure to phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), so-called "endocrine disruptors" which can interfere with hormones that regulate gender. Animal and human studies have linked these substances to a broad swath of health problems, inlcuding prostate and breast cancer, and altered genital development. "Virtually all of us are regularly exposed to low levels of phthalates and BPA," says Shanna Swan, a University of Rochester epidemiologist and an expert on endocrine disruptors. "The risks from these products have not been firmly established. But there are some measures we can take, until the use of these chemicals in everyday materials and products is more aggressively restricted."

Here is what she recommends:

* Children can be exposed to phthalates by chewing on soft vinyl toys or similar products. So dispose of all teethers, pacifiers, nipples, "sippy cups" and heavily mouthed toys made of soft plastic, unless they are labeled as PVC-free or phthalate-free.

*Dispose of all clear, shiny plastic baby bottles, unless the manufacturer states they are not made of polycarbonate (which is made from bisphenol A)

* Don't microwave plastic containers used for cold food storage — they often melt and warp, because they are not designed to withstand the high heat of microwaving. Avoid microwaving food in freezer cartons or on Styrofoam trays

*Choose containers made of polyethylene, which is phthalate-free (although it may have other additives). Instead, use microwaveable glass and ceramic cookware.

*Check the bottoms of plastic containers for recycling codes and use ones with codes #1, #2, # 4 (forms of polyethylene) and #5 (polypropylene) and avoid #3 (polyvinyl chlorine, which contains phthalates), #6 (polystyrene) and #7 (most are polycarbonate, which contains BPA),

*Use PVC-free plastic wrap and never let it directly contact food. In fact, you may want to avoid using plastic wrap — try waxed or parchment paper instead.

*Use filtered drinking water (even bottled water may contain phthalates); only one phthalate (diethylhexyl phthalate) is regulated in drinking water, and even that may, at times, be present at higher than permissible amounts, since levels fluctuate over time and water is tested only intermittently, while other phthalates are not regulated at all. So consumers may decide to use a home water treatment method. The best way to remove phthalates from drinking water is by using a granular activated carbon (GAC) filter. There are no regulatory requirements for phthalates in bottled water at all. The National Resources Defense Council tested a number of brands of bottled water and some, but not all , contained phthalates.

*Limit the use of phthalate-containing personal care products. Phthalates are often used to bind scent in personal care products, and some companies have removed some or all phthalates from their products. More information about specific products can be found at When in doubt, choose unscented shampoos, moisturizers and deodorants

* Ask your health care provider for phthalate-free medical care, checking pharmaceutical labels for presence of phthalates and, when building or remodeling, avoiding PVC (vinyl) materials that will add phthalates to indoor environments.

*Search the Internet for sites describing products you can purchase that are free of these chemicals.

*For more information on alternatives to PVC in toys, go to the web site of Joel Tickner, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.