Rubber Ducks in a Row as Schwarzenegger Signs Ma Bill to Protect Children from Toxic Chemicals in Toys

Posted on 14 October 2007

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Ducks-in-a-row.jpg By Frank D. Russo

This is a story of David defeating Goliath. A feel good moment in the midst of a number of ugly vetoes. The fact that this bill barely passed both houses of the legislature--with exactly the number of votes it needed to reach the Governor's desk, and that it was not clear he would sign it, speaks volumes. It passed the Assembly on a 41-34 vote and the Senate on a 21-18 vote, both of them on largely party line votes with only one Republican legislator--Senator Abel Mald0nado voting for it.

It was a hard fought battle that won over Governor Schwarzenegger to sign AB 1108, by Assemblymember Fiona Ma, banning the use of phthalates--chemicals added to PVC to make toys soft and flexible--just the thing that makes them irresistible to children for chewing. Even though they are known to be toxic chemicals, they have been commonly used in baby products such as teethers, bath books, and rubber ducks available in California. Phthalates do not chemically bond to PVC molecules causing them to leach out, often directly into a child’s mouth.

But AB 1108 will now become law and California will join a number of European countries, Argentina, Fiji, Mexico, and Japan in banning these chemicals. This may also cause action to be taken in other states and will certainly increase the use of substitute producs that are safe.

Credit Ma and a coalition led by Environmental California that included all the major environmental groups in the state and the California Nurses Association, the California Labor Federation, breast cancer and women's groups for their lobbying efforts. They adopted the rubber ducky as a potent symbol of what should be safe for infants and children. At one point, a thousand phthalate-free rubber ducks marched to the state capitol as part of an event to urge the Governor to sign the Toxics Toys Bill.

There was intense industry opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Grocers Association, California Retailers Association, American Chemistry Council, and other powerful interests in the Sacramento.

In the end, it was Governor Schwarzenegger who said: "We must take this action to protect our children. These chemicals threaten the health and safety of our children at critical stages of their development."

According to US EPA studies, phthalates have been shown to have negative effects on human health including interfering with the hormone system, causing reproductive and genital defects and early onset of puberty. Phthalates may also lower sperm count and are associated with risk factors for testicular cancer. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), phthalate levels are highest in children.

“Because children’s minds and bodies are growing and developing, they are particularly vulnerable to chemicals that could affect proper development,” said Assemblymember Fiona Ma, author of AB 1108. “Given what we know today, the only solution to this problem is to ban the chemical from children’s toys.”

This also may be the last of its kind to be signed by the Governor. In his signing message, he indicated his belief that chemicals should not be dealt with on a chemical by chemical basis. This is what he said:

"I am signing Assembly Bill 1108, which would restrict a group of chemicals called phthalates, a type of plasticizer, from use in children’s toys and child care articles.
While I believe the circumstances related to phthalates warrant taking action now, I do not believe that addressing this type of concern in the Legislature on a chemical by chemical, product by product basis is the best or most effective way to make chemical policy in California. I strongly believe there needs to be a systematic way to address these types of concerns where California’s scientists can work together with experts from throughout the world to evaluate the health effects of chemicals, assess the risks they pose, and ensure that the safety of possible alternatives receives the same consideration.

"I am looking forward to the recommendations being developed as part of the Green Chemistry Initiative led by my Secretary for Environmental Protection. I encourage the Legislature and all California stakeholders to participate in this important initiative so that we can develop policies that will again allow California to lead the nation and the world in health and environmental protection."

There are other toxic bills pending in the legislature including AB 706 (Leno) that would ban the use of brominated flame retardants called PBDEs. Leno's bill failed to make it out of the California Senate by a single vote on the last night of the session and is pending reconsideration in that body.

Last week, the academic journal Science published a commentary by Arlene Blum, Ph.D., a noted biophysical chemist whose fire retardant research led to the removal of mutagenic and carcinogenic fire retardants from children’s sleepwear in the 1970’s. Dr. Blum’s commentary embraces the first of a kind approach to chemical regulation in AB 706 which addresses the toxicity of a class of chemicals rather than banning one toxic chemical at a time.

“In California, Assemblyman Mark Leno introduced AB 706, a bill that authorizes the state to consider human health and environmental impacts as well as fire safety when regulating flammability,” said Dr. Blum in her commentary. “This bill would prohibit the most toxic classes of chemicals in furniture, mattresses, and bed clothing (unless the manufacturer can establish their safety) and stop the cycle of replacing one toxic fire retardant with another.”

Brominated and chlorinated fire retardants, which studies have shown to have serious health impacts including cancer, reproductive difficulties, and neurological problems, are virtually impossible to avoid and have been found to be building up in our bodies.

“Substances removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970’s because they change DNA and cause cancer, are today being added to furniture cushions to comply with outdated California law,” said Assemblyman Leno. “AB 706 would change our outdated furniture fire safety standards to utilize greener chemicals and better construction methods to deliver equivalent or better fire safety without the use of toxic brominated and chlorinated fire retardants.”

The Science commentary highlights that brominated flame retardants called PBDEs are not only structurally similar to the human toxicants PCBs, PBBs, dioxins, and furans, they also have similar mechanisms of toxicity in animal studies, bioaccumulate, and persist in humans and animals.

Dr. Blum concludes the commentary with a maxim for flammability regulation, “Fire retardant chemicals in our homes should not pose a greater hazard to our health and environment than the risk of the fires they are supposed to prevent.” AB 706 is sponsored by Friends of the Earth, Making Our Milk Safe (MOMS), will be coming up for a vote in 2008.

This is another bill heavily opposed by the industry affected. Full page ads were taken out in newspapers and this will probably be another pitched battle. Stay tuned.