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Kids' fast food and vinyl:
Chew on the toy, but don't eat the burger.

Rhode Island parents face a new dilemma. Just when a leading fast food company stops making kids-meal toys out of vinyl, food workers here are likely to be wearing vinyl gloves when they prepare those meals.

Rhode Island has made it illegal for food handlers to wear disposable gloves made of natural rubber latex, and vinyl is the most likely alternative. The Legislature passed the ban in response to concerns that some individuals are allergic to latex proteins, which can cause skin rashes, and in some cases, respiratory problems. Less than 1 percent of the population has this sensitivity.

Apparently, though, the legislature was unaware that by trying to solve one problem, it has created another with potentially more far reaching consequences. The Japanese Ministry of Health recently issued a directive warning against the use of vinyl gloves in food establishments, citing evidence that a highly toxic chemical leaches from vinyl into food. Di-2-ethyl hexyl phthalate (DEHP) can constitute as much as half the material in vinyl gloves, is reported to cause reproductive problems and to reduce liver and kidney function in animals.

Although Japan is the first country to issue such a directive involving food workers, many other countries have recognized and responded to the dangers vinyl poses to consumers. In 1998, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission requested that retailers stop selling teething toys containing DEHP and related chemicals, and a number of other countries have recently banned the use of such substances in childrenís toys.

Another concern is the reason that food handlers are required to wear gloves in the first place: to protect consumers from diseases that can be transmitted by contaminated hands. Study after study has shown that latex gloves are far more effective than vinyl substitutes when it comes to stopping the spread of infection. Vinyl gloves are far more likely to leak and tear, endangering consumers when food handlers have open sores, communicable diseases, or inadequately washed hands. With documented leakage rates as high as 60 percent for vinyl - compared with zero to 4 percent for latex - itís clear that latex gloves mean safer food.

If all these food hazards arenít enough reason to avoid vinyl, there are a host of environmental reasons as well. In addition to DEHP, thereís dioxin - a documented human carcinogen - which is released into the water, air, and soil whenever vinyl is disposed of. Incinerating vinyl causes the release of dioxin and other poisons into the air, while burying it in a landfill ensures that these poisons will leach into the soil and groundwater for decades afterward. And recycling vinyl is expensive and difficult.

Rhode Island lawmakers have essentially legislated this nasty substance into our food chain. This is a decision that makes no sense. Rhode Islanders should demand that the Legislature rethink this dangerous new law.

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