Are We Poisoning Ourselves? (update 9/2010)
By Stephanie Sullivan (originally featured in LifeLike Dolls Magazine)
A few months ago, I had an eye-opening (if a bit scary) phone conversation with an American expert on vinyl dolls and vinyl chemistry, Mr. Nicholas J. Hill of TwinPines of Maine, Inc. It was the most interesting conversation I've had in quite some time.
Mr. Hill holds 3 different vinyl technology patents, and is a degreed organic chemist working toward his PhD at the age of 76. Interestingly enough, he is also studying holistic medicine and will soon have a website dedicated to health advocacy. He's been widely quoted as warning people not to bake vinyl dolls and polymer clay objects in their home ovens if they intend to bake food afterwards. I asked him to elaborate on this, and he told me that doll vinyl and polymer clays, when heated, release vaporized plasticizers (this could be any combination of 800 plasticizer chemicals many known as phthalates - nearly ALL of which Mr. Hill says are “known to be carcinogenic”), which coat the inside of the oven. These chemicals can re-vaporize when you bake your foods and be deposited into them. The phthalates issue might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the Consumer Protection Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) which took effect in Feb 2009.
What is vinyl?
PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is a thermoplastic resin supplied in powder form and mixed with any number of softeners (plasticizers) and pigments to make up a liquid slurry (called plastisol in the doll industry) which can then be molded using heat into what we commonly recognize as vinyl products (3). Vinyl is everywhere these days (cars, flooring, plumbing, shower curtains, clothing, food storage items, etc). However, for the purposes of this article, we will concern ourselves only with the vinyl mixtures that end up in manufactured dolls and reborn doll “kits”.
At this writing, many of the doll kit manufacturers state their kits are phthalate-free. If true, then perhaps some of Mr. Hill’s concerns are allayed. However, my limited research revealed that other plasticizers are believed to be harmful when vaporized with heat and inhaled or ingested. It’s been stated by some sources that many plastics are endocrine disruptors (1). On the other hand, this is strongly refuted by vinyl producers (5). To learn more about vinyl, the Internet is a vast resource of pros and cons (4). The Information Sources at the end of this article will help you.
So What’s The Issue Then?
The fact is, in the creation of reborn dolls, heating the vinyl to ensure permanence of coloring pigments falls outside the commonly accepted usage of vinyl toys, which is what the industry considers when applying safety standards. Even early reborn artists discovered that gently heating a doll painted with regular artist oils and mediums sped up the arduous process of reborning. I was aware when I did this of the many well known toxicity issues involved with regular artist oil paints, but it never occurred to me that I might be doing something to endanger my health.
With the advent of Genesis Heatset Paints, thousands of reborn artists worldwide began subjecting vinyl dolls to heat in the range of 275°F or 130°C to set the paint. And in the course of making one doll, it will be repeatedly heated perhaps as many as 7-10 times. Nobody really questioned if it was “safe” to heat the vinyl. Yet all of us know that when you “bake” a doll or kit, “fumes” or odors are released. We smell them. What are they? I call it the “new shower curtain smell” and it is evidently a combination of all the various chemicals used in the creation of the vinyl dolls and kits themselves. (Note: phthalates are odorless, oily, with low volatility, so “smell” is no indicator of toxins).
While it is true that Genesis Heatset Paints themselves are certified non-toxic, the same cannot be said for the other chemicals we use during the reborning process, nor the vinyl.
So those plasticky “fumes” or odors bother us to greater or lesser degrees, and yet only recently has this topic been widely discussed on internet chat lists, along with the possibility that long-term we may be causing ourselves harm. A well-known and highly respected international Reborning forum early this year posted a warning about heating doll kits in ovens. It was said that at least one artist had medical proof that heating vinyl in her home oven and breathing “vapors” were causing her some very serious medical problems. I have not heard a follow-up to this story, but it serves as a wake-up call to all of us (9).
I would argue that most reborners do not have extensive art school backgrounds and may not be familiar with toxicity issues even surrounding standard artist oil paints and mediums. This has been a cottage industry from the start, and most of us simply have no clue about what we are messing around with! This is one more reason we need to educate ourselves right now, and take responsibility for ourselves, our health, and the health of our families and even the safety of collectors who end up with our dolls.
An old saying is “the dose makes the poison”. If you only make several reborns a year, your limited exposure to vaporized plasticizers is possibly a minimal risk at worst. You can do more harm reheating your leftovers with plastic wrap over a plastic container on a regular basis (2).
But for those of us making a living at regularly creating reborn dolls for the collectibles market; if you make more than a few dolls per year AND you use your home oven to heatset paints (or bake polymer clay sculpts) AND cook your family’s food on a regular basis, then I submit, based on my research, that you may have cause for concern.
When discussing this issue, someone always argues that if working with PVC exposes us to toxins, then all doll factory workers would be getting sick and dying, wouldn’t they? Well, as with so many environmental chemicals, long-term exposure is what you must consider. Mr. Hill also cited to me a study done at the University of Sweden years ago that claimed that vinyl industry workers develop cancers from 17 - 34 yrs after working with PVC vinyl. If this is true, then just because you’ve been creating and baking reborn dolls in your home oven for the last couple of years and have suffered no noticeable ill effects doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not slowly accumulating toxins in your body fat or creating respiratory or liver toxicity issues for yourself in the future. Is it worth it?
The fact is, at this time we simply don’t have enough science at our disposal to prove or disprove the safety of heating PVC repeatedly in our homes without proper safeguards and ventilation. Therefore, I urge each of you to consider the information we have at hand, and decide for yourself. With new legislation changing the face of the vinyl manufacturing industry (especially toys and dolls) it behooves all doll artists who use heatset paints to stay up to date on the most current information available. Ask your kit manufacturers for MSDS sheets. Do your reading. Stay abreast of vinyl safety topics on the Internet. I encourage all doll and kit manufacturers to provide to your dealers and customers full disclosure information on the base plastisols and lubricants used in the molding of your products.
Hill recommends that serious doll artists and sculptors get an additional "doll dedicated" oven, preferably vented to the outside, in which to bake dolls and clay. He convinced me, as did my personal research into PVC, that it’s likely that baking vinyl and polymer clay in a home oven in which I also prepare meals could be health endangering.
The bottom line is, we all have to make decisions for ourselves going forward. For me, this means the old oven I’ve been using is going downstairs to the basement and vented to the outside and I’ll keep my new oven for food only. It’s my understanding that many artists have used their ingenuity to devise perfectly workable “doll ovens” from tabletop convection ovens and even large electric turkey roasters! Reborners are nothing if not resourceful! To your good health!
I continue to receive concerned emails nearly every day on this topic. I'm glad! People are reading this and paying attention! There are probably worse things than baking dolls in our ovens, and they are just one source of environmental pollution or toxins that we encounter every day. Never microwave in plastic - never use saran wrap to cook anything - there are so many ways we can do the same or worse damage to ourselves with various plastics and chemicals besides our dolls. I just think it's smart to listen to the guy who has a degree in vinyl chemistry when he says "don't do it!"
I've personally beat cancer twice, so I do not intend to do anything to add toxins to my own environment when I can help it.
That said, I do not think there is any need for hysteria. There's a rumor circulating about the cause of death of Elena Goodson of Bloomers*n*Bows, a well known dollmaker. It's being said that she contracted liver cancer from baking dolls in her oven. This is a complete fabrication! I hope that if you receive that email or belong to a doll forum or online group that is spreading this misinformation that you will direct them to this article and also tell them that they are misinformed. Elena had pancreatic cancer, and developed early respiratory complications having nothing to do with reborning (after all, it's also well known that Elena used air dry paints!).
Thanks for reading!
1. “Plastic and Endocrine Disruptors. The Endocrine Disruptors Contained in the Plastics.” Science Links Japan website: http://sciencelinks.jp/
4. “Background on PVC Toys” Greenpeace.org website: http://archive.greenpeace.org/comms/97/pvctoys/documents/background.html
5. “Phthalates Questions and Answers” American Chemistry Council website: http://www.americanchemistry.com/s_phthalate/sec.asp?CID=1762&DID=6479
6. “Phthalates and Children’s Toys” American Chemistry Council website: http://www.americanchemistry.com/s_phthalate/sec.asp?CID=1905&DID=7584
7. “The Issue” Healthcare Without Harm website: http://www.noharm.org/us/pvcDehp/issue
8. “Chemical stirs up controversy” LATimes website: http://articles.latimes.com/2007/oct/22/business/fi-chemical22
9. “Dangers of Heating Vinyl” Simply Reborn Ltd. Website: http://www.simplyreborn.ltd.uk/dangers.htm
10. “The Definitive Book on the Care and Preservation of Vinyl Dolls and Action Figures” book by Nicholas J. Hill (available at http://www.twinpines.com/)
11. Additional Recommended Reading:
* The Hundred Year Lie, Randall Fitzgerald
* The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-Being, Nena Baker
* How Everyday Products Make People Sick, Dr. Paul D. Blanc, MD