CCINAC: 2. Toxic chemicals in toys

It’s not breaking news that a lot of toys are made with toxic chemicals. But it’s important to know what they are, what threats they pose and why they are even used in the manufacturing process in the first place. And if you’re too old to play with toys, keep reading – the new toxic threats can be found in household items and fashion jewelry.

I’m not going to go through every chemical, but I am going to highlight a few of the dangers because most of the toxic chemicals share ill effects on development, learning, behavior, growth and the nervous system of children. It might seem like us environmentalists are always coming at you with a new toxic chemical, but science is getting better at detecting chemicals, defining their health effects and, well, don’t you want to know if you’re paying to put toxic chemicals near or in your body (or your those of your kid(s))?

It’s extremely important to protect children from these chemicals because they can have detrimental effects on their developmental growth, learning ability, behavior and nervous system in general. Adults need to protect themselves, but they also need to be aware of what toxic chemicals they might be introducing into their children’s environment. Children are vulnerable, growing and tend to have vulnerable immune systems as well. Even if you are childless but searching for a birthday gift for a niece, nephew or family friend, it’s important to take that child’s health into account when buying that gift.

Here are a few examples of health hazards commonly found in toys:

Lead

Lead is the most popular toxic chemical to cause recalls, and it’s the main toy toxin people associate with numerous health problems (nervous system/brain damage, learning/behavior problems, slowed growth, hearing problems, headaches). Although lead still can be found on some toys – often used in the paint applied to toys – the use of lead has been on the decline.

 

According to a study conducted by the Ecology Center, the amount of toys containing lead has gone down by about two-thirds since 2007. There was a lot of public outcry to get rid of the lead, and there were new regulations put forth to address the use of lead in toy manufacturing.

Cadmium

Aside from the fact that lead is still found on some toys, another problem that has erupted from avoiding lead is that some companies chose to use cadmium, a very toxic metal, instead of the safer zinc alternative.

According to CBS News, the cheaper price of cadmium might have influenced some companies to use it as a substitute for lead (not to mention there are no regulations on cadmium when used in jewelry). Cadmium is often used in jewelry – this is especially concerning because older children and even teenagers and adults shop at Wal-Mart and Claire’s for cheap jewelry alternatives to gold or silver.

 

Although the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is currently investigating cadmium concerns, it’s likely they won’t find anything positive about this metal. It’s poisonous, carcinogenic and can cause kidney damage. Because of its long half-life in the body, it’s possible that small amounts can accumulate over time and lead to cadmium poisoning.

PVC

The next problematic poison doesn’t come in the form of a metal, but plastic: PVC, polyvinyl chloride, is a carcinogen that is found in toys and household items alike. You know that plastic-y smell you get when you open a new shower curtain, air mattress or tablecloth? That’s the smell of PVC – it smells awkward and unnatural because our noses are really good indicators of toxicity (it’s the same reason you gag at the smell of paint or car exhaust).

 

Polyvinyl chloride (AKA vinyl) is common in a lot of toy balls, children’s swimming pools and teething rings. As if it wasn’t enough that sometimes kids just shove toys in their mouths when they are meant for other purposes, PVC can be found on toys that you want your toddler to chew on! The Ecology Center study found PVC in 42 percent of the toys it analyzed.

PVC is an interesting toy element because its negative effects are especially dangerous – in its manufacture dioxin is created, and dioxin can cause cancer and neurological damage; if dioxin spreads from toy plants into the water, it bioaccumulates up the food chain and seafood-loving humans could ingest it.

In the production of PVC, additives are used – such as the aforementioned lead and cadmium – and the risks posed by these additives leaching are just a few paragraphs above this one. Countless other toxic compounds that go into the production of PVC also can leach out and be dangerous to children or anyone who inhales, touches or ingests the material. Children eat a lot of weird things, and the last thing you want is to see them chewing on or swallowing some PVC.

Poison in production

Toxic chemicals like bromine, arsenic and mercury are also found in toys, and most if not all of the same health risks apply. What’s worse is that children aren’t the only ones who are vulnerable – although adults also purchase and use many toxic items, the people who work in the manufacturing plants work around these toxic chemicals all day long. These people truly risk constant exposure from inhalation or contact.

What’s worse is that like many plants that deal with hazardous materials, these plants are often built or opened in places of poverty. Lots of people who are eager and in need of work are drawn to working at plants which deal with these toxic chemicals, putting them at a higher risk of suffering the health effects (or having their surrounding environment affected, e.g. contaminated waterways).

Another reason that metals are so often found in toys is that their production often starts overseas in countries like China, where the metal is extracted from electronics shipped from all different countries. E-waste – the TVs, computers, cell phones, etc. that people throw away in the garbage – is often shipped overseas where people take the machines apart to search for metals that can be reused in new products. I will talk about e-waste in a different post, but the recycling of the e-waste particles into toy manufacturing is partly to blame for the metals being found in toys.

 The good news

 

The good news is that about two-thirds of the toys tested in the Ecology Center’s study were free of lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury, so it’s definitely possible to manufacture toys without using toxic chemicals. There are also alternatives to PVC on the market, so it’s not impossible to watch out for the safety of your children, your family or yourself when shopping.

For PVC, avoid the words “PVC” and “vinyl,” and also check the product for the number “3” with the recycle arrows around it. The “3” indicates that the plastic resin used in manufacturing was PVC, so avoid those products to avoid PVC.

For a list of toys recalled, check this list provided by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. These recalls not only list recalls because of lead exposure but other hazards such as choking or burn hazards. Because no cadmium recalls have ever been made, you’ll likely not find cadmium information here (this is subject to change with regulation changes).

Cadmium is mostly used in jewelry, so avoiding cheaply priced jewelry – especially if it was made in China – is your best bet to avoid cadmium exposure.

Click here to search for specific toys and learn whether their toxicity level should be of concern. The Web site also has news about toxic toys and lots of other great resources.

As always, you can get involved with your Representative or Senator by e-mail or phone and urge regulations when it comes to toy toxicity. Get e-mail updates about toy recalls and safety news by signing up for the US Consumer Product Safety Commission’s e-mail list by clicking here.

(Note: How to divert e-waste from being sent overseas will be addressed in the future blog focused on e-waste.)

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