Dangerous Dildos, Part 1

In an unregulated industry, can sex toys be toxic?

Many years ago, I did a photo shoot with porn star Chloe for Taboo magazine. It had been a long day of a hundred different poses and we were tired. "Let's get that double dong and do an ass to ass shot," said the photographer right before her assistant handed me a red two-headed rubber dildo fresh out of its package, with that shiny film on it that many jelly toys have. I spread lube on one end and began to slide the dildo into my ass, which was already warmed up from Chloe's fingers. As the head slipped inside, my ass suddenly felt like it was on fire. A burning sensation spread throughout my butt, and when I looked up at Chloe, who was waiting for her end, she said, "I know that look. The toy must be old. Hot poker, right?" I yanked the fiery phallus out and jetted to the ladies room where I used an enema bottle filled with warm water to rinse out my butt. It didn't do much good. I would later learn that the culprit was phthalates, a group of industrial chemicals with many uses, including, as I found out, being a pain in the ass.

Phthalates (the ph is silent) are added to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to make it more pliable, so they are often found in soft plastic things, like toys made for small children, animals, and sexual pleasure. Vinyl sex toys containing the chemicals are among the most inexpensive and widely available on the market. But while their texture makes them ideal for insertables, it turns out that what makes them enjoyable may also make them toxic. Because phthalate-spiked PVC is not a stable inert compound, these toys continually leach phthalates, which can cause a nasty odor, a greasy film, and genital irritation (like the burning sensation in my ass?).

It seems like phthalates are everywhere: They're in cosmetics, perfume, hair products, body lotion, deodorant, nail polish, carpeting, flooring tile, and medical devices. But that's not all: A 2000 National Institutes of Health (NIH) study concluded that 85 to 90 percent of our phthalate exposure comes from food—mainly meat and fish. They come from processing equipment and food packaging, and because they're everywhere in the environment, they've made their way into the food chain. Today, you probably washed some down the drain.

In studies on mice and rats, high levels of phthalates have been linked to reproductive organ damage, liver damage, and liver cancer. According to Consumer Reports, four studies published in the NIH journal Environmental Health Perspectives have linked high phthalate levels to human health issues, including premature breast development in young girls, low sperm count or motility in men, and lower testosterone levels in male newborns. The most well-publicized human study tested the urine of pregnant women and found that a higher level of phthalates correlated with a smaller anogenital index (the distance between the anus and the genitals) in male newborns. However, critics argue that the science of the study is flawed and there's no evidence that being on the small end of the anogenital index is problematic.

Other countries have responded to the potential threat based on rodent studies and research. In 1998, Canada took children's rattles, teethers, and dog chew-toys made with phthalates off the shelves. In 2005, after an eight-year battle, the European Union banned the use of three phthalates in children's toys and child-care products and the use of three others in toys and items that can be put in children's mouths. According to Environmental Science & Technology Online, "Some disagreement existed over the risk assessments. . . . The technical experts concluded that DINP, the phthalate most widely used in toys, posed no risk. However, the Scientific Committee for Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment disagreed and considered it a potential risk. The Environment Directorate of the European Commission advised the EP [European Parliament] that enough 'scientific uncertainty' existed to warrant limiting the use of DINP in toys that can be sucked and chewed." The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) tested similar products and concluded they are not harmful. But if Canadian and European kids can't put such products in their pieholes, should we be sliding them into other holes?

There have only been two studies on the relationship between sex toys and phthalates, both European. In September 2006, the Danish Technological Institute's Analysis and Health Risk Assessment of Chemical Substances in Sex Toys concluded that implied health risks were minor to nonexistent (except pregnant and breast-feeding women, who were cautioned against "heavy usage"). In the same month, Dutch research firm TNO (hired by Greenpeace Netherlands) found that seven of the eight toys it tested contained at least one of the phthalates banned by the EU, and that phthalates made up 24 to 49 percent of the toys' composition. Although the study didn't contain any new information about the health effects, Greenpeace called for the ban of sex toys containing phthalates.

Researching the research on phthalates is a dizzying project in itself, with each side of the argument using scientific jargon to discredit the other. Environmental activists say they're toxic and should be banned. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies one phthalate (DEHP) as a probable human carcinogen (based on the rodent studies). Right on cue, the plastics industry, its lobbyists, and the CPSC insist that phthalates are proven safe. Then there are the unbiased number crunchers: Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a group which analyzes "the use and abuse of science and statistics in the media" (see stats.org) concludes: "The phthalate story is a complicated one. . . . There is evidence that our exposure level is about 1000 times lower than the level of exposure at which rats display observable effects. However, since primates are different from rats, we cannot conclude that phthalates are either safe or unsafe based on the animal studies." But Trevor Butterworth of STATS says, "This is not a public health crisis."

So what's a tree-hugging dildo-loving girl to do? See Part 2 of this investigation in my next column.

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