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PVC, the “real rubber” in rubber duckies, is actually polyvinyl chloride, a widely-used plastic. In terms of revenue generated, it is one of the most valuable products of the chemical industry. There are many uses for PVC including vinyl siding, plastic cards (such as credit cards), window profiles, gramophone records (hence the ones made of this material are sometimes called vinyl records), pipe/plumbing/conduit fixtures, bean bags; and, in its soft form, for clothing, upholstery (car seats), flooring, roofing membranes, electrical cables, and, yes, your rubber duckie. Phthalates, a class of chemicals used to “plasticize” or soften otherwise hard PVC plastic material, have been linked to reproductive defects and other health problems.

In Europe, the banning of phthalates, chemicals used as PVC additives to soften plastic toys intended to be mouthed by children, is part of a larger war against a host of toxic chemicals, their use and risks to human health and the environment. For more than 5 years the European plastics industry has been fighting the environmental movement on issues including the degree of recycling of PVC; the phase-out of heavy metals (cadmium and lead); the use of phthalates; and governmental regulation versus voluntary agreements.

As of December 2005, European Union ministers have approved a landmark ban on these and other chemicals, after two years of discussion and lobbying. The regulation, commonly called REACH (registration, evaluation, authorization of chemicals), was presented on 29 October 2003 as part of a proposal for a complete and radical review of the EU's chemical substances policy. REACH has yet to undergo more voting and conciliation process between Parliament and Council before the regulation becomes law in all 25 Member States. This is currently predicted to come to fruition some time in Spring 2007.

So, what effect will this have on your plastic pal? Well, maybe none, especially if you live outside the EU. But for European rubber duckies, the prospects are uncertain. If passed into law, the ban would be applicable to phthalates DEHP, DBP and BBP when their concentrations are greater than 0.1% for all toys and childcare articles, irrespective of the age group they are intended for. Additionally, the ban would apply to the use of three more phthalates (DINP, DIDP and DNOP), which would be forbidden for toys intended for children under three years only when concentrations are greater than 0.1% and if they can be placed in child's mouth. Will European companies give up manufacturing PVC toys? Probably not. Most likely toys currently made containing banned chemicals will be produced using alternative, and potentially under-researched, chemicals which are not banned. While circumventing the ban, this will undoubtedly lead to more chemical controversy.

And the EU aren’t the only ones concerned about chemicals in your rubber duckie. The US PIRG (United States Public Interest Research Group) recently published their 20th Annual “Trouble in Toyland” report which, “offers safety guidelines for purchasing toys for small children and provides examples of toys currently on store shelves that pose potential safety hazards.” The big no-no on the Toxic Chemicals findings: Phthalates. The report calls for the CPSC (Consumer Product and Safety Commission) to follow the European Union’s lead and “ban phthalates in toys and other products intended for children under five and work with the Federal Trade Commission to take immediate action to ensure that toys labeled “phthalate-free” do not contain phthalates.” A bold demand, but not one that seems to be making any big impact in the rubber duckie realm.

Ultimately, for rubber duck lovers, the word on chemical bans and such is this: don’t hold your breath hoping your precious rubber duck collection will become a rare and priceless treasure due to chemical bans. Rubber duck manufacturing will not be denied. Rubber ducks are unsinkable!

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