BRUSSELS - Seven years after campaigners first went into battle against hazardous chemicals being used in baby toys, ministers agreed yesterday on a permanent ban despite fierce lobbying from industry.
The measures are designed to combat the risk to youngsters posed by phthalates, which have been linked with reproductive abnormalities, such as low sperm counts in boys and premature breast development in girls. Phthalates are used as softeners in some PVCs and, with industry reluctant to declare which products contain them, consumers have been left in the dark over the danger.
Alarmed about the potential threat to children's health, the European Union put in place a limited emergency ban in December 1999. At that point the industry said that about 70 per cent of toys on the market were already phthalate-free.
But worries remain about the use of the hazardous chemicals, particularly in less well-known brands, in inflatable toys including swimming aids and paddling polls, and on clothing. A Greenpeace study found last year that phthalates were contained in the printed sections of the fabrics on a range of Disney children's clothes. A Dutch Donald Duck T-shirt print had 170,036mg/kg of phthalates - more than 17 per cent by weight of the sample.
Toy-makers argue that children would have to suck on the toys for seven hours to be at risk. But campaigners point to studies suggesting that a potential danger exists if an item is in a child's mouth for only an hour.
Members of Toy Industries of Europe, a group representing companies including Mattel Inc and Hasbro Inc, the world's top two toy-makers, say that only one phthalate, DINP, is used in their products. This is regarded as a less harmful substance than others though some studies link it to liver damage.
Yesterday's decision by EU ministers will widen the emergency ban from 1999 and make it permanent. The agreement came after the UK and the Netherlands - which holds the presidency of the EU - withdrew their opposition. The two governments had been the most sympathetic to lobbying by the industry which demanded further tests on products.
The new measures, which need approval by MEPs, will mean a ban on three phthalates (called DEHP, DBP and BBP), identified as capable of causing reproductive damage, from all products intended for children. These chemicals are currently banned under the emergency measures in toys for the under-threes intended to be sucked or chewed, such as teething rings.
Three others (DINP, DIDP and DNOP) will be prohibited in toys and childcare articles for children under three and which can be sucked on or chewed. Clothing will not be covered.
The industry signalled yesterday that its long fight against controls is not over. Heidi Ranscombe, of Toy Industries of Europe, said: "We want the wording to be tightened so toys for children under three that aren't intended for the mouth aren't covered." The industry argues that the ban would cover objects like the plastic legs of wendy houses which are unlikely to be sucked by children.
Jill Evans, Plaid Cymru MEP for Wales, said: "It is absurd that it has taken seven years to get here and will take another two for this to pass into law. It says something about the incredible lobbying power of the chemical industry."
© 2004 Independent Newspapers