Here PVC, PVC, PVC – Where are you hiding? Poison Plastic Present in more than Shower Curtains

I posted recently about the report finding phthalates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and heavy metals, including, lead in vinyl or PVC shower curtains, and VOCs offgassing from the shower curtain after installation.  The toxic content and emissions reported from vinyl shower curtains have been widely circulated on the blogosphere.  If you haven’t read about it yet, check out report.

However, a recently released report from Environmental & Human Health, Inc., entitled Plastics that may be Harmful to Children and Reproductive Health reminded just how many products in our home can be made of vinyl.  The report focuses on bisphenol A (BPA), found in polycarbonate plastic, and phthalates, found in vinyl products.  But I’m going to focus on vinyl products right now, and other products in your home that may be made of vinyl.

A very brief summary of the issues with vinyl:  Vinyl is considered the most toxic of the plastics, from manufacture to disposal.  But, for purposes of this blog, I’m just focusing on the potential exposures to toxic chemicals from using vinyl products.  Using vinyl products can expose you to phthalates, heavy metals such as lead or cadmium, and VOCs.  Heavy metals are present as stabilizers in vinyl.  They are not bound up in the polymer and can migrate to the surface where they can be picked up.  Phthalates are added to vinyl to make it soft and flexible.  Phthalates are also not bound up in the polymer, and can off gas or be picked up.  Low dose exposures to phthalates have been linked to adverse health effects in laboratory animals, and researchers have reported associations between phthalate exposures and various reproductive type defects or problems in humans.  Phthalate exposures have also been linked to increased risk of asthma.

And we are exposed to phthalates.  Phthalates and their metabolites have been found in urine, saliva, and breast milk.  And, our children appear to have the highest exposure.  It has been reported that the highest intake of DEHP, one widely used phthalate, is children six months to four years old.  The rate of uptake of DEHP by nursery school age children is two times that of adults.

A Smart Mama tries to eliminate vinyl as much as possible.  Okay, so what are the come sources of vinyl in the home?

  • Soft plastic toys.  The European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers has stated that almost all soft plastic toys are made with PVC, including dolls, bath ducks, inflatable toys, balls, and baby care items.  Also, a lot of small figures are vinyl.  For example, my son’s dinosaur figures were vinyl.  I know it is hard to tell by looking.  But, most soft, flexible plastic toys are PVC.  Almost universally, soft bath toys are PVC.  So what can a Smart Mama do?  Try these substitutes: cloth dolls, vinyl free dolls (available on line), wood spoons for the bath, safer plastic cups and bowls for the bath (my kids LOVE a silicone turkey baster I bought at Target), etc.  For teethers, try silicone, rubber, wood, cloth (put a little water on a corner and freeze for a soothing teether).

  • Rain guards for strollers.  As far as I can tell, almost all on the market are vinyl.

  • Food packaging/storage.  Always check to make sure it isn’t vinyl.

  • Waterproof coatings on mattress pads, changing pads, etc., are often vinyl.  Other options are available, including polyethylene (a safer plastic, but still a plastic).

  • Lunch box liners and other portable soft food storage containers are often lined with vinyl.  Check the fabric content on the label before you buy.  If you have one, and need to continue to use it, make sure any food placed in it is wrapped up.  If you are buying new, vinyl free options are available – just look.

  • Rain gear.  Always skip any rain gear made of vinyl.  The classic yellow rain jacket?  Often vinyl.

  • Pleather or faux leather.  Particularly in children’s garments, faux leather is often vinyl.  Check the fabric label for “vinyl” or “PVC.”

  • Children’s dress up/costumes.  The vinyl costumes will be showing up in stores shortly for Halloween.  Firefighters, police, etc. are often vinyl.  Look at the fabric content – skip any made of vinyl.  Granted – one Halloween wearing is probably not going to result in a significant exposure – but why support the vinyl industry?  And many kids play dress up long after Halloween has passed.

  • Waterproof books.  Usually coated with vinyl.  Find something else, especially since these are often used as teethers.

  • Vinyl flooring.  The flooring used in most of our homes is vinyl – and offgasses phthalates.  If you are picking new flooring, choose a less toxic, more environmentally friendly flooring. 

Keep in mind that phthalates are also found in personal care products.  That’s right, your baby’s lotion, baby shampoo, and baby wash may all contain phthalates (among other toxic chemicals).  For more information, read here.  Phthalates usually are identified on the label – they are usually in the fragrance and need not be separately identified.  If the product is not scented with essential oils, but has “fragrance” or “perfume”, it probably contains phthalates and you may want to skip it.  Some phthalate free baby products are listed here.  For what I think is an enlightening exploration of a favorite baby product’s label, read here.

Also keep in mind that phthalates find their way into a host of other products, including almost any product with fragrance.  Think air fresheners, room sprays, scented dolls, scented clothes, laundry dryer sheets, etc. 

Okay, a shameless plug – My consulting services include testing toys for lead, cadmium, etc. using an XRF analyzer.  As part of that, I can test for chlorine, which will indicate that the toy is vinyl, and from that we can infer that phthalates are most likely present.  I test toys at your home, school, day care or wherever, or I can test by mail!

The Children’s Place Recalls Pajamas for Excessive Lead

The Children’s Place (TCP), in conjunction with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), has announced a recall of boys pajama sets for excessive lead.  The pajama sets came in short sleeve and long sleeve, and both have a printed logo on the chest reading “Athletics 90.”  The printed logo has excessive lead.

TCP PajamasThe pajamas have a blue top and camouflage pants.  They were sold between December 2006 and January 2008 for between $15 and $17 retail.  They were sold in sizes XXS (2/3) through XL (14).

If you have the pajama sets, please return them to TCP immediately.  The recall announcement is available here.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin.  Children are more sensitive to the health effects of lead than adults.  Lead poisoning poses the greatest threat to children under the age of six because their brains are still forming and they are more vulnerable than adults to lead.

Lead exposure may result in developmental disabilities and cognitive impairment, as measured by IQ tests (lowered IQ).  Other health effects include slowed growth, damage to the central nervous system, hypertension, impaired hearing acuity, impaired hemoglobin synthesis, and male reproductive impairment.  Lead exposure has been linked with aggression and attention problems, hyperactivity and impulsivity, which are the common behavioural problems of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

What now? Toxic lead in baby changing pads & diaper bags

You may not even want to hear this but it is actually nothing new.  It gets almost tiresome – the daily reports about this toxic chemical in this product.  You may stop even paying attention.  I can’t say a blame you.  You almost want to give up.  But don’t!  We can eliminate or reduce toxic chemicals in our homes.  It may take some sweeping policy changes to make a real difference on a global scale, but you can make the environment you want a home.

So, what’s the latest?  Diaper bags and changing pads contain lead.  A report from the Center for Environmental Health found high levels of lead in a number of diaper changing pads and diaper bags.  The CEH purchased 60 diaper bags from major California retailers and specialty stores in February and March, 2008, and tested the bags and the changing pads that came with the bags for lead using an X-ray fluorescence analyzer.  The bags & pads were also sent to an independent laboratory to verify the results.

And the results?  Some of the bags came back with elevated lead levels.  Why?  These bags and changing pads, or parts of them, were made with polyvinyl chloride (“PVC” or vinyl) plastic.  PVC plastic has to be stabilized to retain its strength.  It is often stabilized with lead, although other metal salts can be used.  The lead isn’t bound up in the plastic polymer, so it will migrate to the surface, especially with exposure to heat and friction.  The result?  Lead is available for pick up on the surface of some vinyl items. 

The CEH compared the lead levels to the federal standard for lead in paints and other coatings, which is 600 ppm.  This isn’t a standard for lead in vinyl, but it was at least a benchmark for comparison purposes.  There is no federal standard for lead in vinyl.  California’s Proposition 65 requires warnings for listed chemicals, and certain standards have been established for lead in certain products – above the level, a warning is required and below it, no warning is required.  Most of these standards are below 600 ppm for lead in vinyl products, such as tool handles and electrical cords.

Does it matter?  Lead exposure can cause significant adverse health consequences, including lower IQ scores, at low levels.  Children are more at risk for lead exposure.  The benchmark is 10 micrograms lead per deciliter blood, but it is fairly well established that there is no safe level for lead, and health effects have been demonstrated at blood lead levels of 2.5 micrograms per deciliter blood.  Lead exposure is cumulative, so little small exposures can add up.  Lead based paint and lead in household dust remain a more significant exposure for children, but you still might want to check out  your diaper bag.  The highest lead levels were found in the changing pads of three bags from K-Mart including a Disney Baby “Winnie the Pooh” bag, a Baby Got Bag leopard print bag, and a “Baby Necessities” brand bag. A fourth with lead in the changing pad was a “George” store-brand bag from WalMart. A “Red” brand bag from Mimi Maternity and a Carter’s “Out ‘N About” bag from Babies R Us had high lead levels in other parts of the bag.

LEAD: Could your child be going back to school with lead in her lunchbox?

Your child’s lunch box could contain lead, a highly toxic metal.  Lead is used to stabilize some polyvinyl chloride plastic (“PVC”).  PVC is used as a liner in some lunchboxes and soft lunchboxes may be made out of PVC.  As a result, your child could be exposed to lead. 

Lead is known to be harmful to children even in relatively small amounts and it can impair brain development and cause other behavioral and developmental problems.

Power Rangers Lunch BoxThe Center for Environmental Health (“CEH”), a nonprofit environmental organization, reported it found lead in the PVC plastic of several lunchboxes it tested in 2005.  Following the release of CEH’s findings, and the lawsuits it filed, several states issued recalls for soft insulated lunch boxes.  In its August 2006 magazine, Consumer Reports (“CR”) reported that a CR staffer visited two New York-area stores and found lunch boxes from the companies mentioned in a recall.  CR’s tests found that the boxes contained lead.  In lunch boxes tested by CR, the PVC plastic linings contained fairly high levels of lead, and CR’s tests confirmed that some of this lead can transfer in small amounts to hands and to unwrapped food stored inside.

CEH found the highest lead levels CEH found were in the lining of lunch boxes, where lead could come into direct contact with food.  This is consistent with the test results reported by CR.   As a result, children may be exposed to lead when they eat food that has been stored in the lunch boxes.  They may also be exposed as a result of handling the lunchboxes just before eating.

However, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a public statement asserting that PVC lunch boxes are safe.  The CPSC’s website reports that it found no accessible levels after testing 60 lunch boxes. 

But the CPSC’s results have been criticized.  According to documents the Associated Press obtained, two types of tests were performed.  The first involved cutting a chunk of vinyl from the lunchbox, dissolving it and then analyzing how much lead is in the solution.  The second involved swiping the surface and then determining how much lead has rubbed off.

The results of the first type of test, looking for the actual lead content of the vinyl, showed that 20 percent of the bags had more than 600 parts per million of lead, the federal safe level for paint and other coatings. The highest level was 9,600 ppm, more than 16 times the federal standard.

But the CPSC did not use those results.  Instead, the CPSC focused exclusively on how much lead came off a lunch box’s surface when swiped.  For the swipe tests, the results were lower, especially after the researchers changed their testing protocol. After a handful of tests, they increased the number of times they swiped each bag, again and again on the same spot, resulting in lower average results.

As reported by the Associated Press, an in-house e-mail from the director of the CPSC’s chemistry division explained that CPSC re-tested with the new protocol “which gave a lower average result than the prior report … ,” he wrote. “This shows … that the overall risk is lower than our original testing would have showed, as the amount of lead dislodgeable is mostly taken out with the first wipe and goes down with subsequent wipes.”

CPSC spokesperson Julie Vallese explained it this way: “The more you wipe, the less lead you actually find. With fewer wipes, we got a higher detection of lead presence. We thought more wipes was closer to reflecting how you would interact with your lunch box. It was more realistic.”

Using the lunch boxes should not result in a high enough exposure to cause severe lead poisoning.  However, the cumulative exposure, especially when coupled with the likely exposure to lead from many other sources, could result in the accumulation of lead in children’s bodies sufficient enough to cause problems. 

Smart Mama’s Simple Steps:

Replace any vinyl lunch boxes.  Consider replacing your child’s lunch box with a reusable nylon bag or some other material. 

Wash hands!  Don’t forget to remind your children to routinely wash their hands to reduce the transfer of germs but also to reduce their exposure to lead.