Although chemical bans overseas have prompted some manufacturers to reformulate all their products worldwide, many toys and cosmetics are exceptions.
Europe banned or restricted six phthalate compounds in toys. In beauty products, Europe has eliminated 900 compounds, including two phthalates, suspected of causing reproductive disorders, cancer or genetic mutations.
The U.S. toy industry said seven years ago, when the European Union first banned some phthalates, that it would voluntarily remove them from products for babies and toddlers. But last year, 15 of 18 vinyl bath toys, teethers that babies chew on and other toys purchased at U.S. stores contained the chemicals, according to tests by the activist organization U.S. Public Interest Research Group. One plastic book labeled "phthalate free" contained phthalates.
Low levels of phthalates, used mostly to soften plastic, are in the bodies of nearly all Americans tested. Animal studies and some human research show that they block testosterone and cause reproductive abnormalities in male newborns.
Federal officials have concluded that the low doses in toys and cosmetics pose little risk. The Toy Industry Assn. does not track the chemicals, saying "the choice to use phthalates in toys sold in the United States is up to the individual manufacturer."
Mattel, which owns Fisher-Price, says all its products will comply with the EU rules by the end of this year.
In cosmetics, some companies, including OPI Products, the largest maker of manicurists' products, have kept nail polishes with the phthalate DBP on U.S. shelves for two years after the EU's 2004 ban. OPI this fall changed course and said it soon will be DBP-free to save the cost of making two formulas.
Orly International, which sells nail lacquer in 66 countries, decided to be "better safe than sorry" and immediately removed DBP from all formulations, said marketing director Mia Jenner.
"If they remove it there, why shouldn't we remove it here?" she said. "It's a no-brainer."