James Bridges, a British scientist reviewing the matter for the European Commission, said parents should "take precautions" to stop children chewing toys at length. The data has prompted bans on the chemicals' use in toys in six countries but not yet in the UK.
Studies in the Netherlands show the softeners, phthalates, found in teething rings and other items that children under three chew on, are easily released into saliva. Animal tests have found high doses of two common phthalates, DINP and DEHP, can cause liver and kidney cancer, and shrink testicles.
The European Commission considered a blanket ban in June, before the Dutch results were published. The move, backed by the EU commissioner Emma Bonino, failed by one vote. "I think Madame Bonino would have pushed harder for action to be taken if she had seen these results at the time," Professor Bridges said yesterday.
Though phthalates are widely used in industry to soften hard plastics such as PVC, their use in toys has become controversial because children's low weight, developing biology and potentially long exposure makes them relatively more sensitive to chemicals. Furthermore, many toys are designed to be sucked.
The Dutch tests, done with adults, investigated how much DINP would be released into saliva and potentially swallowed when a toy was sucked. Preliminary results alarmed the scientists sufficiently that they recommended halving infants' exposure time and lowering the allowable exposure of the chemicals eighteen-fold.
"The worry is about children continually chewing these," said Professor Bridges. "You can either have no risk - by removing the toy - or stop children chewing them continuously. But we are particularly concerned about children who are institutionalised, say in a poorly run day-care centre or hospital, since they tend to chew toys because they have nothing else to do."
After the results were released, six countries, including Austria and Canada, banned the chemicals from children's toys, while Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Greece are preparing legal grounds to ban them.
A spokesman for the British Plastics Federation, representing the industry, said yesterday: "We are not aware of this Dutch research but we do know that the information and experience available to us hasn't shown any problems at all with plastic products made from products of this type." But he added: "Manufacturers are moving away from making toys with these plasticisers."
Greenpeace, which first raised questions about the safety of phthalates in 1997, said it will encourage the European Commission to reconsider a ban, based on the new results. A spokesman for Greenpeace said: "The worst thing is that the EU let Christmas, the major toy-selling period, go by without taking any action."Reuse content