By Jody McCutcheon
Once upon a time, toys were made of wood, metal, ceramic and fabric–think train sets, blocks, dolls and stuffed animals. But since the 1970s onwards, from Barbie to Lego, Tabio to Wii, they’ve been mainly comprised of one material: plastic.
Yet, children are extremely vulnerable to the chemical toxins found in plastic. So the fact that children’s toys are mainly made of the stuff and hover around the top of the list of products containing potentially dangerous levels of chemicals is very worrying indeed.
A Dirty History
The problem of chemically toxic toys first appeared in the late 1990s when we started to truly understand the long-term danger plastics have on the human body. Soon, research started to prove beyond a doubt that modern toys were harming kids. For example, a 2008 study by the Ecology Centre, a Michigan-based consumer-safety program, revealed that 33% of all the toys tested contained potentially harmful levels of substances, including lead, cadmium and phthalates, and since then, further studies have still found toys laced with phthalates, chemical flame-retardants, Bisphenol A (BPA), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and heavy metals.
Such ingredients can produce serious long term health problems. For example, lead may cause behavioural and intellectual deficits. Phthalates—chemical softening agents used in plastic toys and as ‘fabric softeners’—are thought to be carcinogenic, mutagenic and linked to reproductive problems. The same health problems are related to PVC and Bisphenol A–which was once what babies’ bottles were made from. Cadmium is associated with lung and kidney damage and was found recently in children’s jewellery, toys with batteries and paint coatings. Alarmingly, the list of harmful chemicals in children’s toys goes on.
Children are far more susceptible than adults to the ravages of these toxins. Among other reasons, their skin absorbs toxins more easily than adult skin, and they engage in much more hand-to-mouth activity, so they tend to put more toxic substances in their bodies. Of course, their health won’t suffer immediately– they have many years ahead of them to incubate any health problems such as cancer that these toxic substances may foster.
What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
Normally, when buying children’s toys and gifts, we check to see there are no potential mechanical hazards like choking, laceration and other direct injuries. However, the long term effects of chemicals in toys are just as dangerous–yet few consider these dangers when making their purchases. But the question remains—how and why do dangerous chemicals end up in products intended for the most vulnerable market?
The main problem here is cost-cutting, as low costs encourage the use of toxic products during manufacture, which often takes place in developing countries such as China, far away from Western regulators. Mattel, the world’s largest toy company, recalled over two million toys due in 2007 due to lead-based paint violations on its American-sold toys. Leaded paint is up to one-third cheaper than non-leaded paint, so places like China, with little oversight and huge pressure to supply inexpensive materials, are very likely to use these toxic materials in production.
Then there’s cadmium, which is a cheaper substitute for lead, yet the USA still has no federal regulations against it, so it ends up in many children’s products. In fact, a 2010 investigation by the Associated Press tested more than 100 children’s jewelry items from stores in Texas, New York, California and Ohio and found that some of them contained up to 90 percent cadmium. The story prompted Claire’s Accessories to take charm bracelets off the shelf and Wal-Mart to withdraw jewellery branded Miley Cyrus and The Princess and the Frog. Three years ago, McDonald’s voluntarily recalled 12 million Shrek drinking glasses after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said they contained large amounts of cadmium. But it’s not just lead and cadmium we need to worry about–plastics are another hazard, as we shall see.
Why Plastic Toys are Harmful Toys
It’s never a good idea to give kids plastic toys. The inevitably end up chewing on them, releasing harmful chemicals into their systems. This is an increasingly worrying problem, especially for little girls.
For example, jewellery made for girls is 5 times likelier than other kid’s items to contain heavy toxins, particularly cadmium and phthalates. A recent Health Canada study found cadmium in children’s jewellery at levels as high as 93%–quite scary when you think of how often girls tend to chew on their necklace pendants or charm bracelets.
In fact, last year, the phthalate concern came to a head in the UK over the dangerous craze for loom bands. Testing found that many brands of these children’s charm bracelets contained phthalate levels far exceeding European Union regulations of 0.1%, with two particular brands containing over 50%. Studies by the US-based Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel suggest children with higher phthalate exposure may suffer impairments of neurobehavioral and male reproductive organ development; to make matters worse, these bands and other plastics don’t biodegrade, and many types of plastic items–including children’s toys–have already been found in the bellies of sea animals and wreaking havoc on ecosystems.
UK regulators are now demanding distributor addresses and CE marks (indicating conformity with legal requirements) for loom bands, while also suggesting parents forbid their children from putting these items in their mouths, or better yet–stop buying loom bands altogether. In fact, due to safety concerns, UK toy giant The Entertainer removed loom band charms from shelves.
But it’s not just loom bands we need to worry about–phthalates are found in all kinds of bendable, softer plastic based toys, and were even found in some pacifiers that the tiniest babies suck on.
Unfortunately, harder plastic toys may not be much better. Bisphenol-A (BPA) is the chemical used in the manufacturing of rigid, hard plastics like those used for baby bottles, guns and even some pacifiers. Like phthalates, it is persistent in the environment and our bodies, and has been known to damage cells in breasts, uteruses, and prostate, and can increase developmental disorders (such as ADHD) and nervous system problems. It has also been linked to heart disease and diabetes.
Playing with Fire: Chemical Flame-Retardants
It’s not just plastic we need to worry about–another potential health problem stems from soft toys. How attached are young children to their stuffed animals? Try to imagine cartoon Calvin without cartoon Hobbes. Now imagine cartoon Calvin toting around a cartoon Hobbes dripping with chemical poison, hugging and sleeping with Hobbes at night.
Most plush toys are coated with toxic chemical flame-retardants. Unfortunately, the chemicals may be more dangerous to health and environment than any fire. Yet the chemical industry invests millions yearly to protect its interest in chemical flame-retardants. Two of the most common are bromine and chlorinated Tris. Interestingly, chlorinated Tris was banned from use in children’s sleepwear in the 1970’s—it’s been associated with fertility defects in humans and cancer and neurotoxic effects in rats—but subsequently started appearing in other household items. A 2011 study found toxic flame-retardants in eighty percent of children’s products, with chlorinated Tris being the most common.
Flame-retardant dangers include cancer, lowered IQ and sperm count, compromised reproductive systems and birth defects. Chlorinated Tris is prohibited in products intended for children under age three in Canada, and many US states have restricted or banned the chemical, as has the EU Scientific Committee. The US has no federal regulations on brominated flame-retardants (BFR), although two US states (and Canada) have banned DecaPBDE, one type of BFR. But what tends to happen when one toxic chemical is banned is that another replaces it: polychlorinated biphenyl (better known as PCB) was banned and replaced by BFR, which in turn was banned and replaced by chlorinated Tris. What poison will come next?
Turning to less dangerous—but still troublesome—toys, we come to products containing a glow light. Generally they’re safe, and children love them (especially glow sticks!) but parents should ensure their kids are careful with these items. Specifically, they should ensure children don’t break them open—not just because dangerous shards of broken glass may fall out, but so the glow-causing chemical contents don’t leak out. This substance often contains hydrogen peroxide or dibutyl phthalate, both of which will sting the eyes and skin, and burn the mouth and throat if ingested—in short, a painful experience. The best remedies are to rinse the affected area and call poison control. Indeed, every Hallowe’en and Independence Day, poison control centers around the US receive plenty of calls from parents of children who’ve broken the sticks and received a nasty, stinging burn from the chemical glow substance. Is it really worth the risk?
Clearly, we cannot trust the regulators. American toys are often imported from China, where there is little to no regulation on toxins in toys, and the USA, as usual, has far less regulation than there is in the EU. For example, the EU’s revamped Toy Safety Directive prohibits the use of carcinogenic, mutagenic and reproductive toxicants (CMR’s) at specific concentrations in the production of toys, and lower limits have been established for nineteen toxic substances and allergenic fragrances. Furthermore, each toy requires a safety assessment before reaching market, including an analysis of chemical hazard, and must be marked to indicate it meets these requirements. None the less, the new Toy Safety Directive still seems naïvely lax. For example, manufacturers are allowed to self-certify their products, and—seemingly paradoxically—CMR’s are allowed into toys if no ‘suitable alternative’ exists.
The outlook isn’t totally bleak. The United Nations Environmental Program is developing a policy called Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, which, by 2020, hopefully will provide a framework for producing and using chemicals in ways that minimise significant adverse impacts on human and environmental health. But by then, your kids won’t be playing with toys much, right?
Much work here is still needed, including outright bans on chemicals with well-documented toxicity effects, like carcinogens, CMR’s, persistent bio-accumulative and toxic chemicals, neurotoxicants and endocrine disruptors. Producers must do a better job of standing up to the chemical industry lobby and designing safer toys out of simple, non-toxic materials.
From plush toys and loom bands to glow sticks and Barbies, it seems almost all modern toys are toxic. So how can we protect our children from these dangers? The best answer is simply found in eco-alternatives.
First, just ditch anything plastic. For younger kids, there are plenty of wooden pull toys, wood blocks, safer stuffed animals, non-lead painted metallic toys and rubber based pacifiers from companies like Naturally Earth Friendly or Hazelnut Kids . For older tots, plenty of companies like Magic Cabin have dreamed up imaginative doll’s houses, cars and other typical toys- all are fashioned from eco-friendly materials. Flatout Frankie makes toys from recycled cardboard; Even toys giant Toys R Us knows eco-toys are the future, and now sells a line of eco-friendly products made from organic cotton and wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Of course, you can also always make toys yourself–which is even more fun when the kids participate–or buy homemade or vintage toys on sites like Etsy.
We clearly can’t rely on government regulations. What they should be aiming at instead is stimulating green initiatives for companies to produce safer children’s products. But ultimately, it comes down to parents to inform and educate themselves on the hidden dangers of toys–and then to carefully select what their kids end up playing with. Their future health depends on it.