Judge Upholds Congress' Ban on Toys With Certain Chemicals

Beginning Tuesday, stores may not sell toys or products for kids under 12 that contain chemicals that interfere with the human hormone system, a federal judge in New York ruled Thursday.

Congress banned the sale of toys with all but trace amounts of six types of the chemicals, called phthalates, in a massive consumer product law passed in August. Lawmakers who sponsored the legislation, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have said they aimed to make sure that toys containing phthalates would be off the shelves when the law takes effect Feb. 10. The law also drastically reduces the amount of lead allowed in toys.

But in November the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency in charge of enforcing the law, announced that the ban would only apply to merchandise made after Feb. 10. That would have allowed manufacturers and stores to continue selling inventory made with phthalates indefinitely.

Parents would have had no way to know which items on the shelf have phthalates, commonly used to soften plastic toys, such as rubber ducks, says Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who sponsored the final bill. In a statement earlier this week, Waxman said the commission's decision undermined the intent of the law.

Two advocacy groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Public Citizen, sued the commission to compel it to enforce the ban on all items made with phthalates, regardless of when they were made. A number of animal tests and a few human studies have linked the chemicals to genital abnormalities in boys, and allergies.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe agreed with the advocacy groups, saying that the law "unambiguously" applies to all toys containing phthalates. The agency doesn't plan to appeal the decision, says Joe Martyak, a commission spokesman.

In a joint statement, the advocacy groups called the decision "a victory for children's health and consumer safety."

"A trip to the toy store shouldn't require a guessing game on which toys contain harmful chemicals and which toys are safe," said NRDC scientist Sarah Janssen in a statement. "Now shoppers will have peace of mind when they open their wallets."

The law remains controversial with some businesses, however.

Congress and the commission have drawn fire in recent weeks from many manufacturers, who say that the law could leave them with millions of dollars of inventory that's illegal to sell. The commission has said that Congress set impossible deadlines and didn't get the agency enough resources to enforce such a far-reaching law.

"This ruling reflects the true intent of Congress – that no toy or children's product containing certain phthalates be sold after Feb. 10, 2009, no matter when it was manufactured," says Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "Beginning next week, parents will have peace of mind, knowing that the toys they buy for their children are safe."