Potential toxin found in some sex toys

BY ARIKIA MILLIKAN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 25, 2007

Angela Cesere
Erica Karmeisool, the proprietor of the Safe Sex Store on South University Avenue, holds a sex toy that was made with phthalates, a potentially toxic substance. (KELLYN JACKSON/Daily)

What you don't know could hurt you, especially when it comes to your sex toys.

For years, adult toy manufacturers have been using potentially toxic substances as a cheap way to soften the plastics used in a variety of vibrators, dongs and anal plugs.

The chemicals of concern are a group called phthalates (pronounced "thalates"), and when these products age, the phthalates leach out of the plastic, forming an oily substance on the surface of packaging.

Phthalates are used to soften the plastics made from Polyvinyl Chloride, also known as PVC, and are present in products ranging from cosmetics to plastic shower curtains.

And while the average person unavoidably comes into contact with phthalates in the air or through casual contact, people who use these jelly-like sex toys bring the substances in direct contact with their genital mucous membranes, a fast route into the bloodstream.

It's not clear, though, how dangerous phthalates are in small amounts, because of a lack of research.

Beth Karmeisool, owner of the Safe Sex Store on South University Avenue, said many adult toy manufacturers were coming out publicly saying they would not produce products containing phthalates.

She said she was only aware of one product in her store containing phthalates, the Cyber-Flicker, made with a soft flesh-mimicking substance dubbed Cyber Skin. This product is designed for external use only.

But the store's website indicated that 17 of the 40 vibrators it sells were made from phthalate-leaching PVC.

One of those was a bright blue jelly-like vibrator that seemed to be "sweating" inside its plastic case.

A quick click on the Safe Sex Store's website, which contains product information for all of the items sold there including material, confirmed the vibrator was made of PVC.

Karmeisool was shocked to realize this, and the day after she learned of the presence of PVC, half of the blue vibrators were removed from the shelves.

"That is something we will have to address with the companies," she said.

University Health Service's Gynecology Chief Susan Ernst said that because of the lack of research about the effects of phthalates on humans, it's unclear how harmful they really are.

She stood apart from most of her counterparts when she was the only one out of 20 university medical professionals throughout the country willing to comment for a National Public Radio story that aired yesterday about the use of this potentially toxic material.

Although she said she was hesitant at first because she wasn't very familiar with the issue, she commented about the lack of information available.

On air, she said sex toy safety wasn't something present in the medical literature, or even something that came up with patients.

Phthalates have been used in the past to soften the plastic in pacifiers, bottles and other things teething children might put into their mouths. But tests on lab animals showed exposure to phthalates can damage the liver and kidneys and can interfere with hormone levels leading to irregular testicle formation in males. Other reports indicated the plasticizing chemicals are associated with infertility.

But some say that extrapolating the animal studies to humans just doesn't make sense.

The American Council on Health and Science concluded that phthalates are not harmful to humans in the low levels a child would be exposed to by sucking on a plastic toy.

That didn't end the concern, though.

The children's toy industry is heavily regulated, and products containing phthalates have been pulled from the shelves at the demands of legislative bodies all over the world, from the European Parliament to the state of California.

But the sex toy industry remains largely unregulated.

Because most regulatory bodies classify adult toys as "novelty items," there are different procedures for restricting and approving sex toys than for products made of similar materials, like children's toys.

Karmeisool said she believed the vibrator products in the Safe Sex Store to be made of silicone, and the majority of the vibrators are.

"For the purpose of my store, we are very conscious and will address that issue," Karmeisool said.

She said the Safe Sex Store has already started to phase out products that contain phthalates, but it must be done in "baby steps."

"We can't just clean out the inventory because we have to be cost-effective for our customer," Karmeisool said.

She said it would be up to the adult toy manufacturing companies to get these products off the market, because the average sex toy shopper isn't aware of the health problems phthalates could cause.

This is especially true, she said, in more conservative communities, where she said people are generally less educated and the idea of using sex toys is more taboo.

"As a store, we are here to provide consistent and correct information about any health concern the public may have about those products," Karmeisool said.