There is good environmentalism and there is bad environmentalism: The first is driven by science and achieves meaningful results that improve public health and the state of the planet; the second is driven by fear and creates the illusion of action.
Perhaps the great Chinese lead paint toy scandal of 2007 added a frisson of urgency to passing AB 1108 in the Senate recently. But the bill banning chemicals that make vinyl toys like rubber ducks flexible is a classic case of bad environmentalism for a very simple reason: It will do nothing meaningful to reduce children's exposure to these chemicals.
As the National Institutes of Health pointed out in a review published in 2000, children are overwhelmingly exposed to these chemicals through food and dust and not toys.
In fact, an infant would have to suck on a rubber toy for approximately two hours a day to absorb enough of the chemicals, known as phthalates, to reach the threshold where there might be a risk. This is why the Consumer Product Safety Commission rejected calls for a nationwide ban on the chemical in 2003.
The CPSC looked at a study of how babies and children mouth toys and found the most avid sucker (the 99th percentile) managed only 12 minutes per day. The European Union's Institute for Health and Consumer Protection came to a similar conclusion in the same year. Toys are just not a problem.
There is another reason why regulatory bodies have been reluctant to ban phthalates and it brings us to the second problem with the legislation: there is very little science behind it.
Look at it this way: We know that lead is toxic; the risks are incontrovertible and well-documented, and we need to be careful that children don't ingest lead from any source, not just toys from China. But as yet, no study has shown phthalates to induce any of the problems environmental activists have warned about, namely birth or reproductive defects, cancer, early onset puberty or neurological damage in humans or infants.
The one study typically cited in support of the ban has been widely misconstrued, particularly by the news media, which claimed that it showed a link between genital and reproductive defects in baby boys and phthalate exposure in mothers.
Actually, all the babies in the study were normal and had normal reproductive functioning. What this complex study found was a correlation between some phthalates and a measurement of the relationship between the position of the genitals and the weight of the baby. This marker was then correlated with an increased rate of partially undescended testicles at the time of measurement.
What does this actually mean? We don't know: key aspects of this study were questioned by an expert review panel under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health, which found some fault with the math, and the idea of the biomarker interesting but unproven. The bottom line is that the children didn't have fertility problems.
But even if you see this study as a potential cause for concern, it still didn't find a problem with the most widely used phthalate in toys, DINP. Furthermore, in experiments on rodents, where they are dosed with huge quantities of the chemical, DINP hasn't been shown to cause reproductive problems.
Even if you believe in the precautionary principle, and in preemptively banning anything at the merest hint of a risk, AB 1108 picks the wrong target: exterminating California's population of rubber ducks makes for good political propaganda, but it is nothing more than a Grinch-like solution to an illusory threat.
Contrast this with the real risks children face, such as being run over by their parents' SUVs in their own driveways (476 killed between 2002 and 2006, according to the group Kids and Cars) -- or the risk of being killed by a falling television (one in 3,797,997 for a child aged four and under in 2006, based on data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System).
Okay, so the risk from falling televisions is extremely small, but the point is that we can still put numbers on the problem and quantify the risk. Not so with phthalates, where these kinds of numbers just don't exist. The risk, in other words, is hypothetical.
And this brings us to the underlying problem with California's legislative obsession with ridding toys of these chemicals: it distracts from the kind of meaningful, evidence-based public health interventions that could make measurable difference to mothers and children, such as making women more aware that they need to take vitamins two months prior to conception, as well as after; increasing the number of level three neonatal intensive care units (better care for premature babies), and more efforts to discourage smoking and alcohol and substance abuse during pregnancy.
All of these would have a significant, demonstrable impact on maternal-fetal health. But, unfortunately, these issues all lack the legislative simplicity, the gut-wrenching, "we're taking action" appeal of declaring an illusory risk to children and then, with nothing more demanding than a show of hands, solving it.