(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #311, April 27, 2007)
The Coalition Against Toxic Toys (CATT) wants you to know that toys can be hazardous to your health.
And they aren’t talking about the kind of toy that comes in a Happy Meal.
Based in Minneapolis, CATT is a nonprofit consumer advocacy and education organization dedicated to ending the manufacture, distribution and retail sale of toxic sex toys. The coalition is allied with Smitten Kitten, a retailer of sex-related goods that prides itself on not selling toys that are toxic to people or to the environment.
Far from being the small, fringe industry of yesteryear, adult sex toys today are a $500,000 industry in the United States alone. The biggest market for them are middle-class couples, 35 and older, in a committed relationship.
But this huge market is for the most part unregulated. Medical devices, teething rings for baby, even your dog’s chew toy are regulated by the US Consumer Products Safety Commission. These products can be made only from materials that are certified as safe and pose no health threats.
But dildos, vibrators, cock rings and other adult sexual paraphernalia receive almost no regulation or oversight at all. No government agency is responsible for ensuring that the toys in the drawer of your bedside table are safe and don’t contain hazardous materials. Adult toys avoid regulation by being labeled “for novelty use only.” (Translation: these are gag gifts to be giggled at, not to be put to any actual use. You want to do what with it? Oh, we won’t take any responsibility if you do that.)
What kind of hazards are we talking about? Independent testing has revealed that many toys contain a variety of toxic compounds including cadmium, lead and toluene. On a personal level, some toys (and some lubes as well) contain ingredients that can irritate sensitive tissue. Some plastics leak hazardous compounds. Toys made of porous materials can never be adequately cleaned or sterilized. And then there’s the more global issue of environmental consequences from the manufacture of certain materials.
One of the plastics often used for adult toys is PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a material that is cheap and easy to work with but that has long been decried as unfriendly to the environment during both manufacture and disposal.
PVC used in sex toys is often laced (or loaded) with phthalates, which can create an invitingly soft and flesh-like surface. Some toys are flesh-colored, while “jelly” toys are often brightly colored and stretchy.
The PVC/phthalate combination is not chemically stable, which means the phthalates leach out of the plastic over time. When that happens the toys change color, texture and smell. Some users of these products have reported irritation after using them.
But even if no contact irritation occurs, there might be more serious problems down the road. Phthalate exposure studies in mice and rats have linked the chemicals to reproductive organ damage, liver damage and liver cancer. Four studies have linked high phthalate exposure to a variety of human health problems. However, most of the research on humans and phthalates has involved skin or oral exposure to the chemicals. Very little, if any, research has been done concerning phthalate exposure through sensitive human genital or rectal tissues.
Based on the research that has been done, the United States, Japan, Canada and the European Union restrict the use of certain phthalates in children’s toys. But no such restrictions exist for adult toys. In this instance, at least, our sex-negative government is staying out of our bedrooms—with unhealthy and hazardous results. Right now users of adult toys are, in effect, the government’s guinea pigs. If problems develop and a negative public-health trend emerges, maybe then the government will take action—as it finally did with asbestos and PCBs, substances once thought safe.
In addition to containing toxic chemicals, the plastic used for cheap toys is porous and can never be adequately cleaned or sanitized. Because the pores in the plastic can harbor bacteria, viruses and fungi, toys made with porous plastic can spread disease if shared.
The good news is that you can buy toys that are safe. Toys made out of materials like high-quality glass, medical-grade silicone, high-quality stainless steel, hard acrylic plastics and polished non-porous stone will last almost indefinitely and can be cleaned and sterilized. The bad news is that good toys will probably cost more than cheap, inferior toys.
Not all plastic toys are toxic (although they still may be porous, and thus impossible to clean). Responding to market pressures, many toys are now being marketed as phthalate-free. But remember, this is for all intents and purposes an unregulated industry, and no watchdog is making sure that the claims on product packages are truthful. So don’t blindly trust packaging claims.
When shopping for toys, CATT recommends using the “smell test”: If an item smells perfumey, or like a new shower curtain, it’s giving off chemicals. (Medical-grade silicone, glass, stainless steel, and stone have no odor because they are not emitting chemicals.) A toy should also be considered suspect if it looks shiny or feels greasy.
You can find much more about this subject at CATT’s website, <www.badvibes.org>.