Toy manufacturers are exposing children in China to high levels of industrial chemicals known as phthalates that the U.S. and European Union have banned from children’s products, the environmental organization Greenpeace says.

Phthalates, the best-known of which is DEHP, are used to soften plastic children’s toys. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified them as probable human carcinogens. They have also been linked to “gender-bending.” A 2005 study, for instance, suggested that phthalates could affect the genital development of boys, and other research has associated the chemicals with the early onset of puberty in girls.

Congress passed a ban in 2008 after concluding that the chemicals posed a risk to children who chew on their toys.

But there is no such ban in China and, according to Greenpeace, testing by an independent laboratory found phthalates in 21 out of 30 samples of children’s products purchased in four Chinese cities. Nineteen of the 21 positive samples contained more than 10% phthalates by total weight, with one toy containing 43.1%.

“In China, kids are unprotected from these harmful toxins,” Greenpeace campaigner Yixiu Wu said in a news release. “We urge the Chinese government to follow suit and immediately ban the use of phthalates in children’s products.”

Studies have shown that phthalates disrupt the endocrine system that releases hormones into the body.

As NPR reported, scientists from the Consumer Product Safety Commission opposed the U.S. ban, saying “there was not a risk of injury to children,” but Congress went ahead with the prohibition in 2008. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the ban was needed because phthalates had been “linked to serious reproductive defects.”

“Children are one of the most vulnerable groups to hormone disruptors — they like to put things in their mouths, and their reproductive, immune and endocrine systems are still developing,” Wu noted.

A recent study by researchers from the University of California at San Francisco found phthalates in the blood and urine of pregnant women, highlighting the ability of some potentially harmful substances to endure in the environment and the human body.

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