Joseph Pereira, The Wall Street Journal

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After recalling millions of toys to protect consumers
from lead paint, toy makers face growing pressure over another
material, a plastic found in myriad playthings, from balls to dolls.

The Toy Industry Association, the manufacturers’ trade
group, says polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, in toys poses no safety risks.
Still, retail giants Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and Sears Holdings
Corp. have started programs to get rid of some of the toys and other
products that contain PVC, bowing to pressure from environmental
activists concerned that children who chew on PVC could ingest
dangerous chemicals. Some of these chemicals have been banned in the
European Union and will also be illegal in California under a law
effective next year.

Some of the first plastic playthings without PVC —
commonly known as vinyl — will be shown at the world’s largest toy
trade show, the American International Toy Fair, which opens on Sunday
in New York. Green Toys Inc., a San Francisco start-up, will unveil
several lines of toys made from organic and recycled plastics.
Consumers “want to know what is going into the toys their children are
playing with,” says venture capitalist Robert von Goeben, who
co-founded the company. He says Green Toys has been getting inquiries
from many major retailers.

Other manufacturers are rushing to introduce
vinyl-free plastic toys as early as this spring but aren’t saying much
about them because of the proprietary nature of the new materials.

Mattel Inc. and Hasbro
Inc. are testing a corn-based plastic from NatureWorks LLC, Minnetonka,
Minn., in developing a variety of toys, according to people familiar
with the matter. “We feel that toys are a natural fit for our product,”
says Snehal Desai, chief marketing officer for NatureWorks, which is
jointly owned by Cargill Inc. of Minneapolis and Teijin Ltd. of Japan.

One company using NatureWorks’ patented Ingeo plastic
polymer is I Play, an Asheville, N.C., children’s products maker. In
May, it plans to ship to retailers a new line of PVC-free play teacups
and dining ware. Because of questions raised about PVC, some consumers
“are asking for materials made of something else,” says Becky Cannon, I
Play chief executive. In addition to toys, I Play’s nonvinyl offerings
include children’s clothing, rain boots and sunglasses. Toys “R” Us
Inc. and Target are among I Play’s customers, Ms. Cannon says.

Depending on how it is made, PVC frequently contains
lead or other toxic metals. Vinyl chloride, used to make PVC, has been
identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a carcinogen.
Certain chemicals in the phthalate family, which often are used to
soften PVC in toys and other products, have been linked by researchers
to developmental and other health problems in children.

Exactly how dangerous PVC is to people is disputed. In
2003, the Consumer Product Safety Commission denied a petition by
environmental groups to ban PVC in toys. The commission said it didn’t
believe children chew on PVC toys long enough to cause harm.

Among retailers seeking PVC-free products, Target in
November pledged to remove vinyl from a range of store-branded
products, including toys, bibs, lunch boxes and coolers, that are being
rolled out this year. Target says it is discussing “partnerships” with
major companies to eliminate PVC in their products but declined to

Sears, which owns Kmart, in December announced a
similar PVC-free plan. Wal-Mart has begun phasing out vinyl from its
packaging and some products and last May announced a nationwide recall
of bibs made of PVC. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman says the company is seeking
vinyl alternatives for all of its children’s products.

PVC is widely used outside the toy business, in vinyl
siding and water pipes. Some pipe makers switched from PVC to
substances like calcium for water pipes going into homes. But PVC
containing lead is still in certain toys.

In January, under pressure from Illinois authorities,
Ty Inc., the maker of Beanie Babies, replaced its Jammin’ Jenna dolls
with a redesigned version using denim shoes instead of PVC ones.
Testing had found the vinyl contained quantities of lead that exceeded
the state’s limit for children’s products under a new law. Last month,
tests by the Center for Environmental Health found high levels of lead
in several products, including certain vinyl coolers used for storing
breast-milk bottles. Michigan also has a new law restricting lead
levels in children’s products.

The retailers’ anti-PVC moves and the new laws in the
U.S. and abroad have put the toy and children’s products industries
under pressure to find substitutes for vinyl and the phthalates being
banned by California and the EU, a daunting task given how widespread
their use is. In December, testing of 1,200 randomly selected toys by
the Ecology Center, a Michigan environmental group, found 47% of them
contained PVC.

The substance is found in “just about anything that
you can think of that … has a little bit of flexibility to it,” says
Joan Lawrence, vice president of standards and regulatory affairs at
the Toy Industry Association.

The PVC toys that Ecology Center identified included
the Fashion Fever Barbie doll from Mattel and a Classic Tinkertoy
construction set from Hasbro. Mattel says it doesn’t believe that PVC
poses a danger and Mattel is “in the exploratory phase with a variety
of different companies for alternative plastics.” Hasbro says, “We’ve
always had a policy to look at alternative materials we use in all of
our toys and games, and that certainly includes PVC recently.” Both
Mattel and Hasbro say they are now using a nonphthalate as a plastic

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has
warned that phthalates like those used to soften plastic have been
known to cause cancer in rats, and hormonal and developmental
disruptions in children’s reproductive organs. A study of 96 baby boys
in Denmark and Finland published in 2005 found that those fed breast
milk from mothers who had ingested higher levels of phthalates had less
testosterone at three months of age than boys exposed to lower levels.
It wasn’t known how the mothers had ingested phthalates.

Another study, published in December, of 102 Bulgarian
children aged 2 to 7, said that those exposed to a certain phthalate in
dust were more likely to experience wheezing problems. Researchers are
still trying to determine how these chemicals can enter a child’s

Antonia Calafat, chief research chemist at the federal
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says, “What we know is that
phthalates at very high exposure levels result in adverse health
effects in animals.”

The Vinyl Institute, a trade group, is launching a
campaign to inform retailers that PVC is safe. “Some companies are
being pressured and misled into having doubts about PVC,” says Tim
Burns, the group’s president.

–Nicholas Casey contributed to this article