Keep the Gifts Under the Tree Toxics-Free

Just because Congress banned a group of hormone-disrupting chemicals from children's toys doesn't mean Santa's helpers can rest easy this holiday season.

The advocacy group U.S. PIRG warns in its 23rd annual "Trouble in Toyland" report that playthings made from the most toxic forms of gender-bending phthalates remain on store shelves. That's because the ban on certain phthalates, used for making toys squishy and pliable (think rubber duckies and soft-covered books) doesn't kick in until Feb. 10, 2009. Meanwhile, stricter lead safety standards for the paint used on toys won't become law until next August.

If all this isn't enough to give parents -- um, I mean Santa's helpers -- fits, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has announced it will allow retailers to sell toys containing the banned phthalates until they've run out of them -- regardless of the date.

The commission's recent decision drew howls of protest from key sponsors of the legislation. These lawmakers insist their clear intent is to ban phthalates in toys ASAP. The good news: retailers including Toys "R" Us and Wal-Mart are removing all toys containing the banned substances anyway.

Retailers, it seems, are more concerned than the Consumer Product Safety Commission is when it comes to protecting children, even after record recalls in 2007 of 45 million toys and kids products. It's another chilling example of the ineffectual way our federal government deals with toxic substances in everyday products. As a result, chemicals such as flame retardants, plasticizers and stain fighters that can interfere with a body's hormone system and even alter gene expression - potentially affecting our offspring and their offspring -- are present in a vast array of products.

Unfortunately, until Congress and President-elect Obama find the political will to overhaul our federal toxics laws, the burden is on consumers to keep the gifts under the tree toxics-free.

Where toys are concerned, U.S. PIRG recommends avoiding playthings made with PVC plastic, which often contains phthalates. While the new standard for phthalates allows a maximum concentration of 0.1 percent, U.S PIRG found one plastic toy that contained 40 percent.

Staying away from painted toys and children's jewelry items also is a good idea because of potential lead exposures, which can cause irreversible neurological and developmental damage in youngsters at both high and low doses. A group called tested 1500 toys this year and found 20 percent of them contained lead, with children's jewelry leading the most contaminated category.

For the adults on your holiday list, perfumes and body lotions containing toxic substances can really kill the mood under the mistletoe when you consider these chemicals are linked to reproductive problems, allergies and asthma. Be scent-wise by choosing gifts without parabens and phthalates. The most conscientious cosmetics companies will label their products to be free of these chemicals. Check the Environmental Working Group's for information about the toxicity of ingredients in thousands of beauty products.

Practical gifts such as cookware are hot this season with the economy on the skids. To make sure your present is safe for people and the environment, avoid giving pots and pans with non-stick surfaces, which are made using a highly persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative chemical known as PFOA. Instead, choose alternatives in stainless steel, hard anodized aluminum and cast iron.

If you know someone who drinks bottled water, you can help them break their bad plastic habit with a gift of a faucet-mounted water filter and a portable drink container made from stainless steel, aluminum or a new type of unbreakable plastic that is free of the estrogenic chemical bisphenol A.

And consider this: House dust is full of persistent, bioaccumulative chemicals such as stain and grease fighters and flame retardants. Fight toxic dust bunnies with a gift of new vacuum with a quality filter.

For the popcorn lovers in your life, steer them away from the microwave by giving a popcorn maker that air pops the kernels or cooks them on the stovetop the old-fashioned way. They'll thank you for it once you explain how the grease-resistant coating on the inside of microwave popcorn bags migrates into the snack, and this chemical degrades into toxic PFOA.

And if you're putting together a holiday fruit basket, pineapples, mangoes, kiwis and bananas have fewer pesticide residues than all other fruits, so it's not necessary to always buy organic versions. Citrus, pears, apples and imported grapes are another story because of moderate to high pesticide residues, so choose organic if you're using these fruits. Be sure to check out for a shopper's guide to pesticides in produce.

We'll never be able to shop our way clear of the dilemma of toxics in consumer products. It's going to take new laws to ensure the fundamental changes needed to protect everyone from these hazards. In the meantime, though, we can choose safer alternatives. And there's no better reason for checking your list twice.

Nena Baker is the author of the The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being (North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).