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The rubber duck is getting a makeover.

Health Canada announced Tuesday strict new rules limiting the use of six potentially hazardous chemicals known as phthalates in toys and other products aimed at children.

But companies remain free to use phthalates in a host of other consumer goods, such as cosmetics, cleaning products, shower curtains and even cars - a serious problem that needs urgent attention, many environmental experts say.

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Phthalates are a family of human-made chemicals that are often added to plastics, such as polyvinyl chloride, to make them soft and pliable. Often referred to as "rubber duck chemicals," they are added to many vinyl children's products, including most soft plastic toys and bibs.

Concerns over use of the chemicals in consumer products has been mounting in recent years as more evidence showed they may disrupt the endocrine system. Although experts agree more work is needed to fully understand the risks, some studies have shown phthalates may cause feminization in young boys or block the production of testosterone, critical to male reproductive development.

Under the new rules, levels of six commonly used phthalates, known as DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, DIDP and DNOP, will be restricted to no more than 0.1 per cent in toys and child-care products.

The decision is being made more than a decade after the six phthalates were banned in the European Union. The United States announced a similar move in 2009.

Health Canada first proposed the restrictions in 2009, which allowed some companies to start phasing out the use of phthalates early. As a result, labels on some toys and children's products in stores boast they are "phthalate-free."

Mark Badger, president and CEO of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, said while the group doesn't believe there is credible evidence the chemicals cause harm, the changes will ensure Canada doesn't become a dumping ground for imports of toys containing phthalates.

Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based advocacy group, said Health Canada's decision to restrict phthalates will help protect children and put the country in line with other nations.

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But he said the focus will now shift to the phthalates that are still used in cosmetics, personal-care products and other household goods.

There hasn't been a major public outcry about phthalates in consumer products because many Canadians may not be aware of the problem, Dr. Smith said. One major reason for this is that companies aren't required to list phthalates on ingredient labels if they are used to make fragrances, which are considered trade secrets. "It's a huge loophole in Canadian law that we're hoping to, as a next step, address," he said.

Industry associations representing personal-care or household products say phthalates are often used in only trace amounts and that there is no evidence they cause harm.

But Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the U.S.-based Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, said fetuses and children are put at risk because phthalates are so ubiquitous in consumer products. "If we want to protect children," she said, "we need to take these products out of commerce and find ways to make products without them."

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