PhotoKeeping kids safe from potentially toxic chemicals isn't always as easy as it sounds. Take phthalates, for example. It's a chemical that's used to make plastic softer but it has been linked to potential health effects, including reproductive issues and an increased risk for asthma and allergies.

Trying to reduce the risk, Congress banned six kinds of phthalates from toys in 2008, and manufacturers have been turning to alternative plasticizers, which are different phthalates. 

A new study aims to improve scientists' understanding of one possible exposure route for babies: vinyl crib mattress covers. Scientists report in the American Chemical Society's "Environmental Science & Technology" that as these covers warm up, they emit more phthalates into the air.

But little is known about the toxicity of these replacements and it's unclear whether they waft into the air that infants breathe for 12 to 14 hours per day at potentially harmful levels.

Ying Xu and Yirui Liang decided to find out whether infants, who breathe in far more air (given their low body weight) than adults, might be getting exposed to high levels of alternative phthalates.

The researchers tested the amounts of the alternative-phthalate plasticizers released from vinyl crib mattress covers at different temperatures and estimated how much of that the infants might breathe in.

They found that, under warm conditions, the covers emitted significantly higher levels of phthalates that could cause a baby's exposure to increase four-fold. They say the preliminary study is an essential first step to investigating the potential risk posed by these new phthalates.

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