Yvonne Shashoua of the National Museum of Denmark said Wednesday that some dolls and other toys made in the 1950s with polyvinyl chloride are deteriorating rapidly and forming a sticky film on their plastic surfaces.
In a presentation at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, Shashoua said that about 15 years after they are made, some PVC toys tend to weep a chemical used in the plastic molding process.
"The outside of toys, such as Barbie dolls, get sticky," she said.
Studies in Europe show that the chemical can mimic estrogen and disrupt development in the very young, she said. Some studies have blamed estrogen mimics in the environment for malformation of male organs.
The use of the troublesome plasticizer has been generally banned and a new formula now used in PVC products does not pose a health risk, she said.
Officials of Mattel Inc., manufacturer of the Barbie doll, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Shashoua said that young children, when they pick up a sticky doll, tend to poke their fingers into their mouths, transferring the chemical into their bodies.
Old dolls can be made safer by wrapping them in kitchen plastic wrap and not touching the plastic bodies directly, she said.
Preserving the dolls is a serious problem for museums, where archived Barbies and Kens are prime cultural treasures. Shashoua and other preservation scientists are scrambling to find ways to keep the PVC items from turning to dust. She said she hopes to develop a plastic spray that will stabilize the plastic toys and permit them to be enjoyed by many generations of museum visitors.
In the meantime, she advised, Barbie and her old plastic friends need some tender loving care.
"Keep then out of light and store them in dark cool places," said Shashoua. "They shouldn't be wrapped in plastic bags (like those from a grocery store) and they shouldn't be cleaned."