MANHATTAN — When writer Alexandra Zissu was pregnant with her first daughter, a friend asked if her pregnancy would be as organic as the food she ate.
She plunged into researching chemicals in consumer products, such as toys.
Nearly eight years later — after co-writing “The Complete Organic Pregnancy,” followed by her three other eco-conscious books — Zissu said there is certainly more awareness about the issue. But with little legislative reform, parents’ quests for non-toxic toys remain a challenge, she said.
“My neighborhood is wall-to-wall children it seems, and yet I have to schlep to a natural foods store to find a natural rubber pacifier or a wood — not plastic — pacifier chain,” said Zissu, a lifelong West Villager who also has a 4-month-old daughter. “Considering how many hours a day a kid sucks on a pacifier, and how that is a direct route of ingestion, this is no small inconvenience."
The advocacy group Clean and Healthy New York, which has been pressing for legislation in Albany to protect families from toxins, is now focusing on individual stores in the hope of moving manufacturers away from using potentially harmful chemicals, like bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates (found in polyvinyl chloride, or PVC) which, for example, might be found in some pacifiers, among other commonly used plastic products.
BPA (which is used to make strong plastic for things like baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula packaging) and phthalates (put in some toys, bottles, raincoats, backpacks and other items to make plastic flexible) are considered harmful because they act in ways similar to hormones naturally found in the body as are associated with developmental and reproductive problems, according to Mount Sinai's Children's Environmental Health Center.
Despite bans or company claims to the contrary, these chemicals may still be found lurking in products, according to watchdogs.
Clean and Healthy New York plans to launch a campaign this summer that targets Buy Buy Baby and Babies 'R' Us, scoring them based on whether their products contain these and other toxins that can cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive dysfunction, learning disabilities and other common illnesses.
It also hosted an advocacy day on Tuesday, encouraging parents to contact their local elected leaders about getting dangerous chemicals out of toys.
“Our goal is to get Buy Buy Baby and Babies 'R' Us to be places parents can be confident shopping,” said Bobbi Chase Wilding, deputy director of the Albany-based Clean and Healthy New York.
The group hopes the big retailers can help push manufacturers toward using safer alternatives.
It has been working to get toxic flame-retardants out of crib mattresses, nursing pillows, changing pads and car seats, releasing a study last year that found 85 percent of the baby and children's products it tested from popular chain stores had these potentially cancer-causing agents.
But with about 80,000 chemicals used to manufacture goods in the U.S., many of which aren’t well known or on the public’s radar, companies will sometimes swap one toxin if banned or has a bad rap — like the Tris flame retardant, TCEP, which New York banned in 2011 or BPA, which many companies have stopped using already — with another harmful chemical, Wilding said.
She likened regulation for chemicals to the "wild wild west."
“It’s almost impossible to walk into a store and know whether a product is safe or not,” she said. “Most parents assume they are safe because they hear about regulation all the time. I think the average parent thinks if they’re buying a mattress that it’s OK for their kid. But there could be chemicals in there they really don’t want their kids to sleep on.”
Of the 80,000 chemicals, roughly 2,800 of them are used in high volume, and fewer than 20 percent of them have been tested for possible toxicity to children, according to the Environmental Health Center, which advises parents to look for BPA-free and PVC-stickers and avoid plastics nos. 3, 6 and 7, for instance.
“Consumers are much more aware now of the link of chemicals and certain illnesses,” said Pat Jenny, acting vice president of grants at the New York Community Trust, which recently awarded Clean and Healthy New York a $50,000 grant to help its forthcoming retail campaign, among other work. “We have retailers very concerned about consumer complaints.”
Some specialty boutiques already pay close attention to chemicals, including Park Slope’s Norman & Jules, which carries toys made of natural materials or recycled plastic.
“Kids go through the whole stage where they’re putting everything in their mouth,” said Courtney Ebner, who asks the manufacturers and artisans that make toys for her year-old shop about the materials they use. "They’re precious, new little lives, and we don’t want any chemicals on them."
She and her husband, Avi Kravitz, stock products that encourage creativity, inspired by the research they did about preventing developmental delays for their daughter, Charley, who was born 13 weeks early and is now 2 years old. But the couple also wanted to carry toys that wouldn’t harm children or the environment, Ebner said.
“It takes more time,” Ebner said of her shop, which has an array of wooden and artisanal toys. “But we feel so strongly because we want to have safe products.”
A spokeswoman for Babies 'R' Us pointed to the company’s website that lists its safety practices regarding policies limiting the use of chemicals, noting, for instance, the company no longer sells vinyl bibs in favor of PVC-free ones.
A Buy Buy Baby spokeswoman said the company would "be happy to consider information" from Clean and Healthy's campaign in "connection with our ongoing commitment to the safety of the products we sell."
Zissu joked that she has to wear nose clips when going to Buy Buy Baby, which she only does if she needs something that she can’t immediately get online or elsewhere.
“I run in and run out,” she said. “I don't like it in there at all, and I can smell all of the products off-gassing their chemical components.
“It would be great if it were easier to find the kind of toys I'd like my kids to play with,” Zissu continued. “It can be exhausting having to find the good toy, then find where I can buy it in person versus online, then go to the store, [which is] usually out of the way. It's more time and work than 99.9 percent of the parents out there have the energy to deal with."