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It's Surprisingly Hard to Ban Toxic Sex Toys, But Here's How to Protect Yourself
OCTOBER 13, 2017 3:05 PM
PHOTO: COMEDY CENTRAL
These days, most of us will carefully check ingredients lists for gluten and trans fats, demand that our water bottles be made without BPA, and seek out paraben-free, body-safe cosmetics. But the average person can’t tell you what a toxic sex toy is—or even that they exist. Unfortunately, in the unregulated sex toy industry, plenty of sex toys are potentially rife with products that can hurt you (and not even in the fun, kinky way).
Perhaps the most well-known offender in terms of toy toxicity is a group of chemicals known as phthalates, a plasticizer that can be blended with other substances to make them softer and more flexible. A spotlight’s been shone on phthalates in recent years, as publications like Bustle and Bitch, and feminist-oriented sex shops like Good Vibes and Babeland have spoken out against them.
So why all the hullabaloo? It turns out that phthalates may have side effects when they come into contact with your body that could potentially be terrible for you—and aren’t disclosed by most sex toy manufacturers. According to Amanda Morgan, D.H.S., a faculty member at the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who wrote her master’s thesis on harmful sex toy materials, phthalates are known endocrine disruptors that can cause health problems. “[Phthalates] mess with your hormones; they can cause birth defects, or other things related to liver or kidney functioning,” Morgan told me, referencing studies that have linked phthalates to irregular fetal development, early-onset puberty, and lower sperm counts, among other issues. “They can really mess you up because they pretend to be your hormones, and so your body’s hormonal cycle gets knocked out of whack from exposure to these things.”
With the short-term effects of chlorine and the long-term effects of phthalates, PVC is, Morgan said, “definitely one of the worst sex toy materials we’ve seen.”
When you hear horror stories about sex toys, though, it’s not necessarily phthalates that are to blame. One of the most common anecdotal complaints about toxic toys is that they cause skin irritation: “I first thought [it] was a yeast infection or BV, because of extreme itching and burning on my inner labia,” reports one reader who wrote in to sex toy review blog Dangerous Lilly. “My ass suddenly felt like it was on fire. A burning sensation spread throughout my butt,” recalled sex educator Tristan Taormino about a questionable dildo she used. One Playboy story described a dildo that caused a woman “such severe pain that she could barely speak.”
I asked Emily S. Barrett, Ph.D., a professor at the Rutgers University School of Public Health who has done extensive research on the prenatal effects of endocrine disruptors like phthalates, whether these reported burning sensations fit with her understanding of the chemicals. She told me she hasn’t seen evidence that phthalates irritate the skin in this way, and that they tend to “act on a much more subtle level most of the time.”
So what is causing these health problems? According to Amanda Morgan, phthalates aren’t the only sketchy ingredient still getting into our sex toys. As part of her thesis research, Morgan tested 32 sex toys to determine their chemical makeup. What she found was pretty scary: The toys she tested typically contained 30 to 35 percent chlorine. She said PVC, a material commonly used to make inexpensive sex toys, always contains chlorine (hence the chemical name “polyvinyl chloride”). Even scarier, in 2006, BadVibes.org—an organization that, full disclosure, is linked to pro-toy-safety sex shop The Smitten Kitten—ran lab tests on four popular sex toys. They found that two of them were made of PVC and contained “very high levels of phthalate plasticizer.”
“We use chlorine to kill bacteria in things,” Morgan said. “If you are being exposed to this high level of chlorine, especially in a sensitive membrane area [like the vagina or rectum], we could definitely chalk that up to causing irritation, burning, or messing up the environment by exposing it to something that is, as we know, a sterilization product.” So with the short-term burning effects of chlorine and the long-term endocrine effects of phthalates, PVC is, Morgan said, “definitely one of the worst sex toy materials we’ve seen.”
Now, you might be thinking, “OK, great to know! I’ll just buy only safe toys from now on!” Well, it’s not so simple. Since the sex toy industry is unregulated, it doesn’t fall under the current purview of the Food and Drug Administration. According to FDA press officer Angela Stark, that’s because the agency “does not regulate devices meant purely for sexual pleasure. It does, however, regulate genital devices that have a medical purpose such as vibrators intended for therapeutic use to treat sexual dysfunction or to supplement Kegel exercises.” Of course, the vast majority of sex toys don’t fall under this “health aid” umbrella.
The current Congress likely wouldn't rush to make a bold, sex-positive statement like mandating sex toy safety.
The responsibility of regulating sex toys could potentially fall to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but Morgan told me the understaffed CPSC is already in charge of regulating over 15,000 types of products—not to mention the products themselves. The complex issue of sex toy regulation would be a big ask on top of all that.
Add to all of this the fact that the current Congress likely wouldn’t rush to make a bold, sex-positive statement by mandating sex toy safety, and there are plenty of reasons your sex toy might not meet body-safe standards. “Our government doesn’t generally like to talk about people pleasuring themselves,” Morgan pointed out.
Beyond that, though, Morgan adds that regulating the sex toy industry might not even be the best solution to getting rid of toxic toys anyway. “If something is federally regulated, that means that the federal government—depending on where they are in their political leanings at that time—could potentially make it illegal to have these products, by saying they are ‘dangerous’ and then regulating them out of existence,” she reasoned. “You get certain types of people in power, and they may not believe in sexual health, wellness, [or] self-pleasuring. It might go against their core values, and therefore they [might] use their political agenda and the federal regulation system to regulate these products out of people’s hands.”
It’s a conclusion that Zach Biesanz, a legal assistant in the office of New York’s Attorney General, came to in his 2007 paper in the journal Law & Inequality: "Special regulation of the sex toy industry would be unreasonably burdensome from a regulatory standpoint,” he wrote. "Only banning these toxins outright will suffice to protect consumers from phthalates' harmful and even lethal effects.”
"Sniff your sex toy. That's the easiest thing you can do [to protect yourself]."
In the meantime, how do you tell if a toy is safe? Sex toy experts like Morgan, Smitten Kitten founder Jennifer Pritchett, and seasoned sex toy reviewer Epiphora all recommend buying toys made of phthalate-free, body-safe materials like pure silicone, stainless steel, glass, and hard plastic. Still, it’s difficult to know what’s what in an industry that mislabels its products so frequently. “Sniff your sex toy,” said Morgan. “That’s the easiest thing you can do. If you smell these products and they don’t smell like anything, then it most likely is a stable chemical compound like silicone.” Phthalates and PVC, however, smell “like chemicals,” according to Morgan, “like a new shower curtain,” according to Epiphora, and “like a headache,” according to Pritchett. The sex toy smell test might sound a little weird, but it’s a pretty good first line of defense.
Morgan also recommends buying toys made by “companies that take a lot of pride in making good-quality, body-safe toys,” citing Tantus and Jimmyjane as examples. Other companies that proudly declare their products body-safe include We-Vibe, Fun Factory, Vixen Creations, and Funkit Toys.
And when in doubt, find a reviewer you can trust. Sex toy review blogs abound on the internet —Epiphora, Dangerous Lilly, and Formidable Femme, to name just a few—and while you’d be wise to take claims about sex toys with a grain of salt in this unregulated industry, sometimes the preponderance of good or bad reviews about a particular company or toy can suggest conclusions about its safety (or lack thereof).
Most important, though, demand body-safe sex toys by buying only from companies you can trust. “Consumers vote with their pocketbook,” said Tantus founder Metis Black. “Support the businesses that make safe toys a priority, that use their resources to educate, that take a stand and advocate for consumers.” She added that while pure silicone toys are expensive now—especially in comparison to PVC toys, which can often be under $30 a pop versus $100+ for silicone—more consumer demand for body-safe toys will create a larger supply at lower prices, as bigger companies with more resources start making nontoxic toys in larger quantities. That’s just sex toy economics.
Bloggers, consumers, and ethical toymakers alike all dream of a future in which no sex toys will burn your junk, give you infections, or cause long-term bodily harm. It seems reasonable enough. And if we keep fighting for it, maybe one day it’ll be reality.
Like coral reefs, sea anemones—with their flashy, tentacle-like polyps that waggle and wave in vibrant reds, greens, pinks, and yellows—provide homes and hiding spots for dozens of fish species, most memorably the orange clownfish made famous in Finding Nemo. Also like coral, rising water temperatures associated with climate change can severely weaken these anemones, causing them to expel the tiny symbionts that keep them alive and lend them color, a process known as bleaching.
That, it turns out, is just where trouble starts.
When anemones bleach, Nemo and pals get stressed out and simply stop laying eggs, according to new research published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. And scientists suspect that pattern may hold for untold numbers of other fish nurtured by either corals or anemones.
In other words, the mere stress associated with bleaching may be enough by itself to drive down many fish populations.
And, of course, bleaching no longer happens by itself.
Scientists also working with baby clownfish already have shown that shifts in ocean chemistry as the seas absorb excess carbon-dioxide—a process known as ocean acidification—can be unusually deadly. It scrambles juvenile fishes' brains, hampering their ability to see, hear, and smell. All that causes confusion, often leading them to swim toward—rather than away from—predators. The end result: they die far more often.
While few if any longterm studies have yet looked at just how bleaching and acidification may work in concert, scientists say they certainly aren't likely to somehow cancel each other out.
"Both bleaching and acidification are really stressful events separately," says Danielle Dixson, with the University of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, who spent years researching clownfish and acidification, but wasn't part of the new bleaching study. "I can't imagine that when they both happen it's going to somehow be any less stressful." (Learn how breeding aquarium fish can help reefs.)
THE CRITICAL ROLE OF HORMONES
The most recent research began when an ocean heat wave washed across French Polynesia in 2015 and 2016. A team of scientists tracked 30 different species of anemones in a lagoon off the island of Moorea. That warmth didn't just cripple corals. For more than four months, it attacked and bleached roughly half of those sea anemones. So scientists sampled the fish living among these overheated anemones and compared them with fish living in healthy ones nearby.
The release of hormones is known to affect how everything from sea birds to marine iguanas weather the rapid upheaval associated with climate change. That's true for fish, too.
The team found that the creatures associated with bleached anemones were chronically stressed, showing high levels of cortisol in their blood, says study co-author Suzanne Mills, with the Center for Insular Research and Observatory of the Environment in French Polynesia. Reproductive hormones dropped in both males and females. Fish pairs from bleached anemones spawned less and ultimately produced far fewer viable young.
That could have longterm implications that could ripple through entire marine systems.
"The cascading effects of bleaching at the community and ecosystem levels will, and may have already, played an important role in population impacts," Mills says.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Mills and her co-authors figured out that of 464 coastal fish species in French Polynesia, 56—about 12 percent—depend on species susceptible to bleaching for food or shelter from predators.
"If these species suffer even a fraction of the impact found for anemone fish, then a short-lived bleaching event could decrease the reproductive output of at least 12 percent of species," the study authors wrote. Ecosystem-wide impacts "may be considerable."
Dixson says Mills' findings are "really, really solid." And while they may not be terribly surprising to marine scientists, it should be an eye-opener for the public.
And, of course, that's only one part of the equation.
"Unfortunately, we're never going to have a world where the oceans are acidifying but not warming," Dixson says. "And all of the data suggests that won't be good."
Yes, there is such a thing as thirdhand smoke and it’s more dangerous than you think.
Thirdhand smoke is residual chemicals that include nicotine left on surfaces by tobacco smokers. We are exposed to these chemicals by touching contaminated surfaces or breathing in the off-gassing from these surfaces. This residue can react with common indoor pollutants to create toxic mixes including cancer-causing compounds, which pose a potential health hazard to the smoker, non-smokers and children.
Thirdhand smoke clings to clothes, furniture, drapes, walls, bedding, carpets, dust, vehicles and other surfaces long after the smoker is gone. The residue from thirdhand smoke builds up on surfaces over time. To remove the residue, hard surfaces, fabrics and upholstery need to be regularly cleaned or laundered. You can’t eliminate thirdhand smoke by airing out rooms, opening windows, using fans or air conditioners, or confining smoking to only certain areas of a building.
Children and non-smoking adults are at risk of tobacco-related health problems when they inhale, swallow or touch substances containing thirdhand smoke. Infants and young children might have increased exposure to thirdhand smoke due to their tendency to mouth objects and touch affected surfaces.
When researchers examined children who arrived in the emergency room with breathing problems associated with second-hand smoke exposure, they found alarming facts. They discovered the average level of nicotine on the children’s hands was more than three times higher than the level of nicotine found on the hands of non-smoking adults who live with smokers. They said nicotine on the skin of a non-smoker is a good proxy to measure exposure to thirdhand smoke.
While thirdhand smoke is a relatively new concept, and researchers are still studying its possible dangers, common sense should tell you there is danger. In the meantime, the only way to protect non-smokers from thirdhand smoke is to create a smoke-free environment.
Thirdhand smoke can linger in an area long after the smoke has cleared. It can take up to five years to clear.
Almost half (46.8 percent) of Black non-smokers in the United States are exposed to smoke or smoke residuals. Tobacco smoke exposure is higher among people with low incomes. Two out of every five non-smokers (43.2 percent) who live below the poverty line were exposed to smoke residuals. This means if you are Black and below the poverty line, you are almost assured you will be exposed to thirdhand smoke.
Thirdhand smoke occurs when non-smokers breathe in other people’s smoke residuals. This includes direct smoke, smoke that is drawn through a cigarette mouthpiece, pipe or cigar and then exhaled into the air by smokers, the smoke that comes directly from burning tobacco and any residual substances left behind after the smoker has left the area. Thirdhand smoke contains the same harmful chemicals as the smoke that smokers inhale. Direct smoke is even more dangerous because it is formed at lower temperatures and gives off even larger amounts of some cancer-causing substances.
Thirdhand smoke also affects non-smokers by causing eye irritation, headaches, nausea and dizziness. Children of parents who smoke are more likely to suffer from pneumonia, bronchitis, ear infections, coughing, wheezing, increased mucus production and asthma. Several studies have also shown a link between smoking parents and SIDS. Children of smoking parents have a greater chance of dying of SIDS.
Thirdhand smoke has been shown, in mice, to damage the liver and lungs, complicate wound healing and cause hyperactivity. Thirdhand smoke can increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Can you develop cancer from smelling smoke odors on clothing or being in a room where people have been smoking? There is no medical research about the cancer-causing effects of tobacco odors, but the medical research shows that the particles that make up second-hand tobacco smoke and thirdhand residuals can attach itself to hair, clothing and other surfaces. Any amount of smoke is dangerous and will cause health problems.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified second-hand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke as a Group A carcinogen. This means it causes cancer in humans. The Group A designation has been used by the EPA for only 15 other pollutants. This list of pollutants includes radon, asbestos and benzene. The EPA has also called environmental tobacco smoke a public health epidemic.
Thirdhand smoke contains over 7,000 chemical compounds. More than 70 of these are known to cause cancer. Some of the toxins or irritants in second-hand smoke include carbon monoxide, nicotine, hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, formaldehyde and sulfur dioxide. Carcinogens in thirdhand smoke include benzene, aromatic amines (especially carcinogens such as 2-naphthylamine and 4-aminobiphenyl), vinyl chloride, arsenic, nitrosamines and cadmium. The greater your exposure to thirdhand smoke, the greater your level of these harmful compounds in your body.
There are three locations where you have to be concerned about exposure to second- or thirdhand smoke — your workplace, who children spend time public places and your home.
Here is what you can do to reduce the health risks of passive smoke:
In Your Home
Making your home smoke-free is the most important thing you can do. All family members will develop health problems related to second-hand smoke if anyone smokes in your house. A smoke-free home protects your family, your guests and even your pets. Don’t let anyone smoke in your home.
Where Children Spend Time
Every organization dealing with children should have a smoking policy that effectively protects children from exposure to thirdhand smoke. This should include day-care providers, preschools, schools and other caregivers for your children.
In the Workplace
The only way to protect workers is to prohibiting smoking indoors, around entrances to buildings and in common recreational areas. The EPA recommends that every company have a smoking policy that effectively protects non-smokers from involuntary thirdhand smoke. Simply separating smokers and non-smokers within the same area, such as a cafeteria and indoor and outdoor recreational areas, may reduce exposure, but non-smokers will still be exposed to recirculated smoke or smoke drifting into non-smoking areas.
Tobacco smoke doesn’t go up in the air and disappear. It settles on everything.
Call the American Cancer Society at (800) 227-2345 for more information on quitting.
If you have a fitness question or concern, write to “Tips to be Fit,” PO Box 53443, Philadelphia, PA 19105, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous articles can be found at www.phillytrib.com by searching “Tips to be Fit.”
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