Sunday, 13 June 2010

News of the World warns of new Euro-threat to British bedroom fun

A resolution by a little-known (if important) committee of the European Parliament to enquire into the environmental impact of certain materials often found in electronic equipment, with a view to possibly phasing them out over the next five years, doesn't sound like the sexiest or most enticing story to distract from the misery of England's failure to beat our new international foe, but the News of the World has found an angle. "Brussels killjoys" we learn "are plotting to take the buzz out of the bedroom - by banning sex toys."

The report quotes UKIP's Paul Nuttall who complained that the move would "cost the bedrooms of Britain a lot of fun", as well as TV sexpert Tracey Cox who predicted it would result in "a lot of disappointed women". They would be reduced to satisfying themselves with Belgian chocolate, she feared. (That's women for you - constantly stuffing themselves in one end or another; otherwise how could they possibly function?) Singled out in the report was the Rampant Rabbit, "made famous by Sex and the City". In a blog post, the Screws' Jamie Lyons claims that the "massive Rabbit cull" was all the fault of "EU bores".

But what is really going on? Could those joyless continentals - without whom we probably wouldn't even have heard of sex-toys, incidentally - actually be training their overzealous regulatory sights on Britain's orgasms? Probably not. Even the News of the World admits that the proposals, which remain at a very early stage in development, are designed to deal with the mountains of waste generated by the electronics industry, specifically the use of PVC in mobile phones and white goods. None of the documents or press releases I've managed to track down so much as mentions dildoes or Rampant Rabbits. The origin of the News of the World's particular angle on the story is somewhat mysterious, then, though I doubt the paper's journalists came up with it unaided. That's not how these things work.

So what is really going on? The European Parliament's environment committee has been looking at proposed amendments to the 2002 Hazardous Substances directive (RoHS), specifically whether flame-retardant chemicals and PVC should be added to the list of banned substances, on the grounds that their disposal causes avoidable environmental damage. In the case of PVC, the alleged problem is caused by phthalates (used as softening agents) which have been linked to health problems, although their actual toxicity is disputed.

Last week's decision was actually a compromise, calling for further research on the appropriateness of a ban. An impact assessment report (pdf) in March had shown stronger reason for and less objection to a ban on flame-retardant plastic than to one on PVC components. In the latter case, while drawing attention to environmental and health benefits of the proposal the report suggested that such benefits were outweighed by the costs - not just of substituting materials but also and especially the cost of extensive product redesign. It called for more detailed work, a proposal that seems to have been accepted.

An interesting point arises here, in that large phone and computer manufacturers including Hewlett-Packard and Sony Ericsson have been lobbying hard for a ban. They have been phasing out these chemical products for some time now, presumably because it is in their commercial interests to do so. Meanwhile, the plastics industry has been resisting the move. Plastics Europe called it "a proposal that has no basis in sound scientific evidence or care for appropriate methodology" and "just another example of scaremongering which would have a significant and unjustified negative impact on the European economy, potentially to the tune of €1bn per year." They claim that other EU studies have shown no serious environmental or health risks.

In other words, rather than a Brussels plot to ruin people's sexual pleasure we're really looking at a typical and convoluted story of competing corporate interests trying to exploit the opaque and little-publicised processes of EU legislation to maximise their profits. There may well be a valid story here, but not one that fits into the News of the World's familiar template of bossy, interfering bureaucrats introducing "barmy" regulations for the sheer hell of it.

As it happens, phthalate-containing PVC has been banned in children's toys since 2006, the fear being that children could absorb the phalates by chewing or sucking on plastic toys. At the time, Greenpeace argued that the ruling should also apply to intimate adult products - vibrators, "Rampant Rabbits" and the like - given that these products were used in ways that could lead to phthalates being directly absorbed into the body.

Whether or not PVC sex-toys pose an actual risk is debatable - and, indeed, has been little researched. There's some evidence from animal experiments that in high doses phthalates can impact on the internal organs, while Cory Silverberg notes that "preliminary studies on humans have suggested a relationship between phthalates and poor semen quality and a relationship between phthalates and genital development." One Danish study suggested that, with moderate use (no more than fifteen minutes a week) any danger is negligible, and even spending an hour a day pleasuring oneself is probably safe unless you're pregnant. It did however recommend that anyone worried about phthalate-poisoning wrap the device in a condom for extra protection. (Here's Silverberg's excellent and balanced article on the pros and cons of PVC sex-toys.) Logically, what applies to children's toys ought to apply to the adult variety, I think.

According to Lyons, "official documents from the European Parliament admit there are problems with finding alternative materials for some products." He quotes the impact assessment as saying that "some of these alternative materials proved unsuitable because of certain properties such as lacking flexibility or bad odour." Clearly a drawback when it comes to sex-toys. However, the sentence in question refers not to sex toys but to the initial efforts of mobile-phone manufacturer Nokia to develop PVC-free products. It continues, "these issues were rectified and since the beginning of 2006, all new Nokia models are PVC-free." On the other hand, Cory Silverberg noted,

I've been told by some manufacturers that you can tell if a toy has phthalates by the strong chemical smell many jelly rubber sex toys have out of the package, and that the stronger the smell, the more phthalates are likely in your toy.

Indeed, it's not hard to see how today's story could be presented in a very different light. Under a headline such as "Dying for an orgasm", the report would have warned readers that

Killer chemicals banned in kids' toys are STILL being used in popular sex-gadgets despite evidence of damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs and other organs. Not to mention the havoc they cause to the environment when they're disposed of in landfill sites. Products such as the Rampant Rabbit, made famous in Sex and the City, may give pleasure to millions of British women - but that pleasure may come at a high price, experts say.

Yet out-of-touch EU lawmakers, under pressure from plastics multinationals, are REFUSING to heed widespread calls for an immediate ban. Instead, there will be a meaningless consultation. News of the World sex columnist Tracey Cox urged do-nothing bureaucrats to speed up the introduction of risk-free vibrators. In the meantime, she added, "Be environmentally-friendly and get rid of them. Treat yourself to some Belgian chocolates instead."

Either way, it's all Brussels' fault.