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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

An investigation into the safety and effectiveness of anti-bacterial toys, soaps, and kitchen equipment. Hasbro Toys recently released a line of anti-microbial toys and has been marketing them as a way to protect children from germs. Living On Earth reporter Bruce Gellerman takes a deeper look at these consumer products and the fears they play upon. He also talks with government scientists at the Food and Drug Administration who say Hasbro's health claims are unproven, and the pesticide used to treat the toys could even be harmful to infants.


RUDOLPH: It's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph, sitting in this week for Steve Curwood. One of the hottest new product lines in the toy business these days isn't dolls or computer games. It's toys that supposedly kill germs. The giant toy maker Hasbro recently debuted a new line of anti-microbial plastic toys. The active ingredient in the toys is similar to that found in many popular anti-bacterial soaps. But an investigation by reporter Bruce Gellerman reveals that Federal officials are looking into the health claims Hasbro is making, and are also considering banning the active ingredient.

(A baby gurgles)

GELLERMAN: My 8-month old son is developing, right on target.

(Gurgling continues)

GELLERMAN: Perched in his high chair, my son puts everything into his mouth. With his tiny hands he grabs teething rings, rattles, and toys, peers over the edge of his tray and with a sly smile and a quick flick of the wrist...

(Numerous objects clatter to the floor)

GELLERMAN: After each toss my son's paranoid first-time parents pick up the plastic projectiles, run them under hot water with a squish of anti-microbial soft soap, and return them to eager fingers --

(More gurgling, more clattering)

GELLERMAN: -- where the process (more clattering) begins again. Parenthood changes you. It makes you hyper-aware of the invisible microscopic dangers lurking by the billions in nooks and crannies, waiting to attack and overwhelm your defenseless child. Striking fear deep within your heart. What's a parent to do?

SERBEY: People are becoming aware that there are some weapons in the fight against the germs.

GELLERMAN: Gary Serbey, a spokesman for Hasbro Toys, says his company has an answer. The Rhode Island toy maker recently introduced a new line of playthings made with a high-tech plastic. The plastic is embedded with an anti-bacterial chemical. The germ-killing agent never wears off, is odorless, colorless, and tasteless.

SERBEY: Do you remember Weebles? Weebles wobble but they don't fall down, and now they've got antibacterial protection. You have to love technology.

(Electronic sounds, followed by numerous varied toy sounds)

GELLERMAN: At the recent toy fair in New York, the largest trade show in the business, Hasbro debuted its bacteria-busting Playskool toys. They cost 10% more than toys built with conventional plastic, but spokesman Gary Serbey says it's a small price to pay for parental piece of mind.

SERBEY: I think that anti-bacterial protection in toys is a major breakthrough in the toy industry. And the reaction that we have received from buyers and from consumers and from the media has just been astounding, and we are really excited about this new technology and this benefit that we will be providing to children and their parents.

GELLERMAN: Hasbro is pitching its anti-bacterial toys as a way to protect newborns, infants, and toddlers from germs and bacteria.

(Commercial: man's voice-over: "The Hasbro toy company's Playskool division has decided to add something to a line of toddler toys: anti-bacterial protection. Microban, an anti-bacterial protection, which is built right into the plastic...")

GELLERMAN: Hasbro's new toys get their germ-fighting ability from the chemical triclosan. Ten years ago, a North Carolina firm, Microban Products, discovered a way to put triclosan into plastic. Henry Richbourg is co-founder of the firm.

RICHBOURG: The active ingredient in Microban is similar to that used in anti-bacterial soaps and shampoos. When a bacterial cell or a fungal cell contacts Microban, the cell becomes unable to function, grow, or reproduce.

GELLERMAN: Richbourg cites laboratory tests that demonstrate that Microban plastic infused with triclosan, kills 99.9% of the bacteria on it. The chemical destroys a broad spectrum of bugs, including staph, strep, and salmonella, microbes that cause pneumonia, dysentery, food poisoning, and skin infections.

RICHBOURG: The key for the Microban is that we prevent this uncontrolled bacterial growth so products don't turn into sources of contamination.

GELLERMAN: Microban plastic was first used in hospital pillows, mattresses, and surgical drapes. Dental instrument trays and industrial carpeting. Now it's finding its way into a variety of household consumer products as well.

MAN (in commercial): These towels are impregnated with a fiber called Microban, which is --

WOMAN (in commercial): The Micro-ban protection is in the fiber of the fabric of the towel --

GELLERMAN: The Microban Company is touting its products on TV as the greatest thing since sliced bread. In fact, there are cutting boards with Microban along with a shopping list of other products like shower curtains, toilet seats, mops, and sponges, promising to keep all of them germ-free.

WOMAN (in commercial): All that yucky kitchen bacteria, the salmonella, the E-coli, and it's just, it's one step closer to creating a cleaner kitchen environment.

GELLERMAN: Did you get that? Here, listen again.

WOMAN (in commercial): It's one step closer to creating a cleaner kitchen environment.

GELLERMAN: Now listen carefully to this next claim.

MAN (in commercial): This is the next step closer to making our kitchen safer.

WOMAN (in commercial): That's right.

GELLERMAN: Cleaner is a nondescript, vague term. But claiming something is safer has health and legal implications. Safer suggests that using Microban products will help prevent disease. It's an important distinction. Microban is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, so you'd think the EPA would have the answer to an obvious question. Do products made with the germ-busting Microban create a safer environment?

JORDAN: The EPA doesn't have data that lets us evaluate and answer that specific question.

GELLERMAN: Bill Jordan is the head of the anti-microbial division at the EPA. He says the Agency has no idea if Microban makes the environment safer. The reason the EPA has registered the product is because it considers the active ingredient, triclosan, a pesticide. In fact, it approved Microban to protect not people but plastics. Microban was first registered with the EPA as a product to keep bacteria from eating away at plastic reinforcement rods in concrete. What benefits it has in children's toys Bill Jordan can't say. And he says, neither can Hasbro.

JORDAN: Hasbro has made representations in Microban that they have data but those data haven't been sent to EPA for evaluation, so I'm unable to tell you what those data indicate.

(Commercial music)

GELLERMAN: The EPA recently sent a letter to Hasbro demanding that the company back up the health claims it's making in its ads.

(Music continues. Woman: "Only Playskool toys like the Roll and Rattle are made with Microban anti-bacterial plastic. It helps control the growth of germs for the life of the toy. And that's good news. Considering how things get passed around.)

GELLERMAN: Again, Habro spokesman Gary Serbey.

SERBY: We're not making medical claims. What we're saying is, this is an important added benefit. It's an extra tool in the arsenal in the fight against germs.

GELLERMAN: So, are toys with Microban safe? Well, the EPA thinks so but it's not sure. The Agency registers pesticides only on the basis of risks and benefits, not safety and effectiveness. That's the job and responsibility of another Federal regulator. The Food and Drug Administration has been investigating Microban's active ingredient triclosan for 25 years. And so you'd think by now the government scientists would know if triclosan meets Federal standards. Debby Lumkins is an FDA microbiologist.

LUMKINS: And we don't really know if we can classify the active ingredient as generally recognized and safe and effective. We don't at this point, haven't seen the data that convinces us of that.

GELLERMAN: Now that's a remarkable statement, considering that people have been using anti-bacterial soaps and shampoos containing triclosan for more than a quarter of a century. In fact, back in 1974, a panel of FDA scientists concluded there was no evidence triclosan prevents infections. In other words, triclosan may kill bugs, but it doesn't do much for you. And it may not even be safe. As far back as 1978 the FDA was sounding alarms about triclosan. The FDA commissioner at the time concluded that anti-microbial soaps with triclosan should not be used on newborns. The FDA even considered a warning label: Do not use this product on infants under 6 months of age.

LUMKINS: The Agency's recommendation for that still stands, that it should bear a warning.

GELLERMAN: FDA microbiologist Debby Lumkin says the Agency continues to believe the companies that use triclosan in their products should alert consumers to its possible dangers.

LUMKINS: But until we finalize, you know, they're not required to use that warning.

GELLERMAN: The FDA feels so strongly that triclosan is neither safe nor effective that without further evidence to the contrary, the Agency wants to ban triclosan. Ciba Specialty Chemicals, the company that invented and makes virtually all the triclosan on the market today, says such a move is completely unwarranted. Company spokesman Keith Hosteler says Ciba recently sent the FDA the proof it's requested.

HOSTELER: There's a well-documented collection of safety data that we stand behind and feel very comfortable with that the material is being -- when it's being used appropriately and under the types of applications that we approve of, that it's safe and effective and it's a value-added ingredient.

GELLERMAN: Ciba has licensed triclosan for use in underarm deodorants, anti-bacterial soaps, and Microban plastic products including Hasbro toys. But the company hasn't always been so confident that the chemical is safe for children. Twenty years ago Ciba issued a voluntary warning about triclosan: Do not use for baby diaper laundry. Again, Ciba's Keith Hosteler

HOSTELER: Certainly there's justifiable concern for exposing infants less than 6 months of age to anything.

GELLERMAN: Hosteler says the company has new evidence that demonstrates that the diaper warning is no longer needed. Still, the company continues to voluntarily warn manufacturers not to put triclosan in products used to wash diapers. Hosteler says people need to use common sense when using triclosan. After all, it is a pesticide. And while he insists it's safe, it may not be appropriate for all uses.

HOSTELER: What's the benefit? Do you want to have a deodorant soap for an infant? Does an infant need a deodorant soap? What we're faced with is the fact that we sell to a market where people will use a soap bar for family uses, and we have to say is it safe? And we've done data, and the tests that we've done, and again an independent panel has concluded that the material's safe for applications where it's put directly in the oral cavity.

GELLERMAN: But even if triclosan proves to be perfectly safe the FDA has other worries. It's afraid that because triclosan does not kill every kind of bacteria, it could upset the natural balance of germs on the skin and lead to a proliferation of some bugs. And even those germs triclosan is effective against, it doesn't kill 100% of them. Some survive. And FDA scientists are fearful that those that do will evolve into triclosan-resistant bacteria. Recent evidence now suggests this may be exactly what's happening. A team of British scientists have announced the discovery of new strains of staph bacteria that are resistant to triclosan. Still, the makers of triclosan say there's no need to worry, because the chemical is not being over-used. But the sales data they cite as proof that use is down is 20 years old. Today the triclosan business is booming. Last year the number of products claiming anti-bacterial effects doubled, and Microban, which uses it in its plastic for cutting boards, toilet seats, and toys, says its sales are exploding, and expects them to triple this year alone. That's a prospect that the FDA's Debby Lumkins finds unsettling.

LUMKINS: Well, I'm telling you we haven't finished our evaluation. And yes, it may not be safe and effective.

GELLERMAN: When people hear this, to be honest with you, Debby, they're going to say I don't get it.

LUMKINS: Yeah, now what?

GELLERMAN: Yeah, what do I do?

LUMKINS: Mm hm. Well, if it were me, and I can only speak for what I do, I believe that there are real benefits to the judicious use of anti-microbials. You know, if you're comfortable with using an anti-microbial, do so. But the biggest thing that the consumer can do to prevent infection is to wash their hands. Very simple. And they don't necessarily need an anti-microbial.

GELLERMAN: Turns out your mother was right. Wash your hands. Wash your baby's hands and toys. And don't forget to brush your teeth. Colgate-Palmolive has asked the FDA for permission to put triclosan into toothpaste for sale here. The Food and Drug Administration and the company are now working on the exact wording for a warning label. For Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.



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