Playing with poison: toxins in children's toys
By Stacy Gittleman
In an early Saturday Night Live sketch, a young Candice Bergman and Dan Aykroyd perform in a consumer probe spoof. In the skit, Bergman plays a journalist questioning Aykroyd, who portrays a toy company executive, about the safety of the toys he is trying to market: a knife-wielding Ken doll, and most notably, a bag of broken glass.
Jokes aside, toy safety is no laughing matter. Over the decades, toys have come to be the most regulated consumer products on the market. Enacted in 1972 with the passage of the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Consumer Protection Safety Commission (CPSC) over the decades has created a labeling system indicating the age appropriateness of a toy to prevent choking, strangulation, and electric shock hazards.
Even so, there are some troubling statistics concerning toy safety. According to the Children’s Safety Network, children and adolescents ages 0-19 sustained over one million toy-related injuries that were treated in emergency departments between 2015 and 2018.
There was a slight drop in toy-related injuries in more recent years. The CPSC estimated that in 2020, emergency rooms treated 198,000 children because of the toys they played with.
While most of these injuries were related to skateboards, scooters, and bicycles, there are more insidious, long-term health hazards lurking in the amount of plastic toys that are ubiquitously found in daycare classrooms or at home in playrooms and bedrooms that can threaten the health of a child long after the toy loses appeal as a plaything.
As mass-produced toys moved from wood materials to plastic, toys became abundant and more affordable so that parents and caregivers could indulge children with an increasing number of toys. Plastic toys tend to be soft and flexible for young hands and mouths to explore. Though the consumer is often most concerned about the most visible hazards in toys, such as small parts, removable small batteries, and magnetic toys that can be a choking and swallowing hazard, that seemingly harmless plastic ball pit or plastic play kitchen can emit gasses known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs – a hidden yet pervasive danger that can have long-term adverse health effects. Scientists, environmentalists, and medical researchers fear these VOCs, as well as the chemical components of plastic toys, are harming the developmental, reproductive, and endocrine health of children. There are links between chemical exposure to disorders from everything from obesity to learning disorders to decreased male fertility.
In addition to emitting VOCs, when children play with plastic toys, traces of chemicals can be absorbed through their skin, inhaled as micro-plastics floating in the dust, or ingested when mouthed by infants and toddlers. Over time, these chemicals have a cumulative effect.
Olivier Jolliet, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and his international colleagues at Technical University in Denmark, along with the United Nations Environment Programme, pinpointed the most prevalent toxic substances found in children’s playthings in Chemicals of Concern (CoC), a paper published in the January 2021 issue of Environment International. This peer review study examined the results of 25 global studies of toxic substances in toys and identified 126 chemicals of concern in toys that children can be exposed to either by touch, mouthing, or inhaling.
“Our consumer products contain somewhere around 30,000 chemicals. This is a lot to address and regulate,” said Jolliet. “The United States is a bit behind the European Union in this regard.”
Jolliet pointed to the 2009 revisions to the European Toy Safety Directive, which states that chemicals that are susceptible to cause cancer, change genetic information, harm fertility, or harm an unborn child are no longer allowed in the accessible parts of toys beyond the concentration limits unless they are considered safe following a rigorous scientific evaluation.
The revised ruling also heavily restricted 19 'heavy elements,' like mercury and cadmium, and banned 55 allergenic fragrances in toys sold in Europe.
But still, Jolliet said this is not enough. If it is necessary to use some harmful chemicals in toy manufacturing, they should be listed on a product’s packaging, just the way ingredients are listed in food.
“Globally, there must be more transparency on the part of toy manufacturers. We had a hard time determining exactly what these toys were made of because the toy companies do not disclose their composition. If certain toys cannot be constructed without certain chemicals, there should be clear labeling on the packaging. I think there is no reason why we don't know what is in a consumer product. Why is it so complicated?”
Jolliet said it was important to quantify how much exposure children were getting to these chemicals through play. They found that plasticizer chemicals that make toys soft and flexible comprise between five and 50 percent of a toy's composition.
Jolliet acknowledges that in the studies used to build his 2021 study, it is unclear when the scrutinized toys were manufactured, or which toy company manufactured the toy. Several of these studies were published before 2018, the year before the CPSC banned all phthalates from toys sold in the United States from mainstream manufacturers.
But just because a certain chemical has been banned does not mean that toys sold in previous years are not lingering around at home, school, or a daycare facility. Old toys are donated, passed off as a hand-me-down to relatives of friends, or sold in consignment stores or garage sales where they largely go unchecked.
The most harmful kinds of chemicals that have been used to make toys are ortho-phthalates (phthalic acid esters), a class of about 40 organic substances used to make polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC. Present in manufacturing for over a century, phthalates are the stuff that makes plastic products plasticized – flexible, strong, or even translucent. In addition to being used for toys, they are also present in cosmetics, adhesives, paints, and pesticides. Phthalates with low numbers of carbon atoms over time have been replaced with less toxic versions containing more than six carbon atoms. Still, ecologists and researchers are concerned that even these replacements pose a risk to the health of young children. They are deemed by environmentalists as the “worst class” of plastics because of their associated health hazards.
Numerous studies have linked phthalates exposure to interference with hormone production and reproductive development, especially in young children. U.S. government data shows that for many phthalates, exposure is significantly higher in children aged six to 11, and in people of color. This class of chemicals has also been linked to metabolic disruption liver and testicular damage.
Asian supply chain quality assurance watchdog QIMA in 2010 conducted a phthalate content study on selected plastic toys produced in China. It found that 25 percent of these toys contained dangerous levels of phthalates. The organization revealed that between 2008 and 2009, there was a five percent increase in the number of dangerous toy notifications in the EU marketplace – from 1,866 in 2008 to 1,993 in 2009. Of these,1,993 products were later pulled from the EU market. Of these toys, 60 percent were made in China or Hong Kong and 26 percent of notifications were due to chemical hazards, more than any other category.
In late 2014, the CPSC proposed to ban five types of phthalates in children’s toys and child care articles due to these health risks but it was not until grassroots organizations pressured and sued the agency to uphold its promise did the CPSC issued its final phthalates ban on October 18, 2017. The ban took effect on April 25, 2018.
Other chemicals of concern in the U-M study that were found in toys known to cause long-term harm include polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, flame retardant chemicals that have been used to produce cheap recycled plastics that often reenter the consumer stream when used for toys. Exposure to PBDEs is linked to learning, memory, and developmental problems, as well as endocrine disruption and cancer in both animal and epidemiological studies.
Jolliet said caregivers can limit a child’s exposure to the toxins in their toys by keeping rooms well-ventilated or opening new toys outside so gasses from new products do not contribute to indoor air pollutants. Overall, he advised limits on the amount of plastic toys that are kept in classrooms, play areas or bedrooms.
“While most children play with one toy at a time, we discovered that within the areas they play, they are surrounded by plastics because they may receive between as much as 35 to 40 pounds worth of plastic toys per year,” he said. “We advise limiting the toys that are in a child's environment by rotating toys and keeping others stored away in a garage or basement. "
For infants, Jolliet recommended limiting the use of pacifiers and bottles with plastic nipples and not letting one's baby fall asleep for hours sucking a pacifier.
In January, Jolliet and his colleagues presented their findings to Chinese toy producers in hopes that they will self-regulate the chemicals used to make their products and understand the potential risks to children and learn how there is a global push from countries which are importing toys to phase out the most harmful chemicals in toys and other consumer products such as cosmetics.
A 2014 report published by the Washington State Department of Ecology found high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including ethylbenzene, styrene and formaldehyde, in tents and tunnels created for children’s use. Electronic toys also emit VOCs as do some wood toys made from pressure-treated or pressed wood or particleboard.
In general, researchers say it is best to stay away from plastic toys that are soft and pliable.
Overall, the CPSC maintains that its toy safety standards are the most stringent in the world.
“The U.S. has one of the best toy safety standards,” said CPSC spokesperson Nychelle Fleming. "Toys have to meet some of the lowest lead and phthalates limits in the world. Part of the way in which product compliance is ensured is through the requirement that an independent testing body has tested and confirmed compliance to applicable standards, including those related to chemical and mechanical hazards."
According to Fleming, toys sold in the United States must meet up to specifications and testing set by ASTM F963-17, a comprehensive standard addressing numerous hazards that have been identified with toys. The CPSC keeps a continuously updated list of recalled toys, childcare products, and furnishings at cpsc.gov/recalls. While most toys make the list because of choking, shock, or falling hazards, a few toys in recent years made the list because they contained lead or phthalates. A product of particular concern that was recalled in September 2021 was a toy shaving kit sold by Janod that contained phthalates. The company sold 13,600 units of the toy before it was recalled.
In August 2020, Hasbro recalled some of their super soaker water blasters sold at Target because they contained lead. About 52,900 were sold nationwide.
The CPSC in recent years recalled dozens of children's clothing items, especially sleepwear, because they did not meet the agency’s flame retardant requirements. CPSC regulations mandate that sleepwear fabric for children sizes nine months to 14 years must be made of flame-resistant material and the clothing must be tight-fitting beginning at nine months, the age babies become mobile. According to Rhodes, from June 24 to July 29, 2021, there were seven children’s sleepwear recalls for this violation. In total, the seven recalls amounted to 22,380 units being found to be too dangerous to be on the market.
Most recently, the CPSC recalled the following sleepwear items because they failed to meet flammability standards: Mark of Fifth Avenue Children’s Robes recalled December 8, 2021, with 10,00 units having been sold.
When thinking about buying toys, consumer advocates contend that it is best to buy from well-known manufacturers and retail stores, even if it means spending a bit more money.
Hannah Rhodes, consumer watchdog associate at U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) said its 36th annual Trouble in Toyland report, warns consumers about the pitfalls of buying counterfeit or knockoff toys on the internet from murky vendor sources. When sold online directly from the factory to the buyer, these toys evade stringent laboratory testing that is required of toys to be sold by traditional retailers that bear a Children’s Product Certificate (CPC) label found on the original boxes or packaging of bigger brand toys sold through traditional toy retailers.
“One of the dangers with of counterfeits or knockoffs – and by knockoffs, I mean toys that do not violate copyright laws but are off-brand toys that mimic more mainstream brands – is they are not undergoing safety tests. That's a major concern,” said Rhodes. “Toys sold in the United States have some of the strictest safety standards out of any consumer product. There are tests for toxic chemicals and small parts. Approved toys also need to withstand use and abuse testing to understand how a toy will hold up to the wear and tear kids put a toy through. So, the idea that toys are being sold online that are not undergoing the safety standards that have taken years of research to develop is really alarming.”
Rhodes said that while one hazard is no more concerning than another when it comes to toy safety, the problem with the presence of toxins in toys is that they are invisible.
She continued, “Parents can see if a toy breaks into pieces with jagged edges or discern if a toy’s parts are too small for younger children to play with. But they cannot detect when toys emit VOCs or when toxic chemicals are absorbed through the skin or inhaled." Rhodes added that the government agencies that investigate chemicals and their health effects should continue to make appropriate standards changes dependent on their research.
In its efforts to assure that all toys reaching US consumers are rid of high levels of harmful banned chemicals, USPIRG is lobbying Congress to pass the Integrity, Notification, and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces for Consumers (INFORM) Act. Introduced into Congress in March 2021 by U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). INFORM, if passed into law, would curb the online sale of counterfeit and knockoff goods by high-volume anonymous sellers (high-volume is defined as vendors who have made 200 or more discrete sales in 12 months amounting to $5,000 or more), and ensure that consumers can see basic identification and contact information for purchased products.
INFORM would also require the online marketplace to supply a hotline to allow customers to report suspicious marketplace activity such as the posting of suspected stolen, counterfeit, or dangerous products. The bill’s requirements would be implemented by the Federal Trade Commission.
European environmentalists and consumer advocacy groups have also sounded the alarm on harmful chemicals in children’s products sold by lesser-known toy companies. Karolína Brabcová is the manager of the toxic substances and waste program of Arnika, a 20-year-old Czechoslovakian environmental research organization that examines the dangers of exposure to chemicals in consumer products in daily life. Just like her counterparts in America, Brabcová sees the greatest chemical threats coming from phthalates and toys made from recycled plastics that contain remnants of bisphenol flame retardants.
“In Europe, there are more substances that are banned from toys than any other category of consumer goods,” said Brabcová. “However, one must look at the entire environment that children and pregnant women live in and consider other sources of indoor air pollutants such as chemicals used to make carpeting, furniture and kitchen products that can have a cumulative adverse health outcome.”
Brabcová said the next steps should include restricting and eventually eliminating chemicals from all consumer products.
“At the end of the day, to protect the population, you just have to reign in the presence of toxic chemicals in all consumer products that are having an intergenerational health impact.”
Brabcová said that toys made from plastics created from electronic products that contain PBDEs and flame-retardant foams remain on the market in some parts of the world. Though she pointed to the fact that delegates at the 2009 Stockholm Convention Conference of Parties agreed to list certain PBDEs as products that should be banned from the global recycle stream, the convention agreed to create an exemption that permitted recycling of plastics, foam, and other materials containing these substances until 2030.
An example of how these substances show up in toys was documented in 2015 by Arnika with the International Pollutants Elimination Network, which together analyzed the composition of chemical substances found in cube puzzle toys. The study compared the chemical makeup of the trademarked Rubik’s Cube, manufactured in Hungary, with cheaper knockoff versions manufactured in Belarus, China, Hungary and Serbia. The study determined that 57 percent of the knockoff brand samples surpassed the EU’s allowable levels of persistent organic pollutants at 50 parts per million, but the official brand contained zero parts per million of banned pollutants. Over time, Brabcová cautioned that toys made from these recycled plastics can leach chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin.
"We did this study because it proved that toys still have residues of substances that have been banned globally from getting iPBDEsy production. PBDE’s have been banned in Europe for 10 years because of their toxicity. But there are still no-name brand toys made in places like China that are made cheaply from recycled plastics that contain all these legacy chemicals. We went back again in 2018 to examine toys sold in places like Germany and Portugal, and we once again found even higher levels of PBDEs. So, if the consumer is going to buy no-name brands or brands that are less well known, you are probably going to buy an unsafe toy."
Lisette van Vliet is senior policy manager of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and in years past worked with Brabcová advocating for stronger regulations of toxic chemicals in Europe. Back in the United States, her organization, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform was instrumental in getting the CPSC to finally ban the use of phthalates in toy manufacturing. Industry groups, led by the National Association of Manufacturers, have challenged this ban.
Lisette van Vliet's organization has extensively documented evidence drawing links between phthalate exposure with breast cancer. She maintains that even with the ban, the United States is "very behind" the European Union on protecting children and adults from phthalates exposure.
She pointed to research that concludes that fetuses and infants, who are at critical stages of their development, are particularly sensitive to phthalate exposure, and young girls exposed to high levels of phthalates are also at risk of negative health effects. Phthalates can cross the placenta and are present in and can be transmitted through breast milk. The chemical also poses adverse health effects in human reproductive, neurodevelopmental, behavioral, hormonal, and metabolic function.
“It’s not just the products children come into contact with, whether child-specific or not," insisted van Vliet. "It's that the whole panoply of uses of toxins is filling all our indoor and outdoor environments with toxic pollution. Children are born already exposed to toxicants before they are born and they continue to be exposed as they breathe, eat and drink. The fact that toxicants are making people and animals sicker, and killing them, across generations is a fundamental point. Our toxics crisis is as big as the climate crisis."
Alan Kaufman, senior vice president of technical affairs for The Toy Association, said that toys are the most heavily regulated products on the United States market. The Toy Association, founded in 1916, comprising 850 members of global toy companies, manufacturers and accredited third-party testing sites, has worked closely with the CPSC for nearly 40 years and serves on a committee that reviews and revises America’s ASTM F963-17 toy safety standard.
Kaufman said that most toy manufacturers in the United States, since the 1990s, have been voluntarily phasing out phthalates. Even so, Kaufman maintains that it is impossible to omit all potentially harmful chemicals in toys.
"There's this feeling that you can eliminate all potentially harmful chemicals from toys, but that is not always possible. When a toy is designed, there are concerns about electrical safety, impact strength, and whether a product will shatter when dropped or if small pieces can be ripped off and swallowed. So, the presence of a small amount of these chemicals to assure the overall safety of a toy is sometimes unavoidable.
He continued, "When you make plastics, there may be very minute amounts of a chemical used in the synthesis that is leftover in the final product, but the levels are so low, and they are locked in the matrix of that product. In other words, it’s not migrating out of that plastic toy.”
Kaufman said that the industry has been moving to replace phthalates with citrate acid esters as proposed as a class of substitute plasticizer, or cyclohexane-1,2-dicarboxylic acid-diisononyl ester, a phthalate alternative introduced into the market in 2002 that is increasingly used especially in the production of toys, food contact materials, and medical devices.
Kaufman also questions the outcome of certain studies, including the chemicals of concern study conducted between U-M and the UNEP, which included peer-reviewed studies that examined off-brand toys sold in developing countries. Because of the continued presence of these products, Kaufman advises consumers to play it safe and buy from reputable brand names at traditional retailers.
“At the end of the day, just because you cannot find that highly sought-after toy that your child wants (at a retail store), don’t go looking to purchase a knockoff product sold at a dollar store or from someone selling a toy on the street for a cheaper price,” advised Kaufman. “And if you want to buy a product at a consignment store, make sure it was made after 1980.”
Toyology Toys owner Nori Klar said much care goes into selecting the merchandise sold in their several stores in metro Detroit. When it comes to purchasing toys, Klar also cautions the consumer that it is best to spend a few more dollars to buy from a reputable seller.
Another good reason to steer away from cheaper knockoff toys, Klar explained, is that, if at any time there is a safety recall on a product, she will be notified by the manufacturer. She keeps records of her customers’ purchases, making it easier to inform them of a recall.
"I don't carry the cheapest toys from no-name third-party manufacturers because I don't know where they are coming from or how or if they have been tested,” affirmed Klar. “And a third-party toy manufacturer would never contact me to pull a product from my shelves like a brand name manufacturer would if there was a need to recall it.”
One example of the many toys sold through Toyology Toys is Crazy Aaron's products.
The company is based in Philadelphia and is best known for its line of stretchable putty products, all made in the United States. Owner Aaron Muderick, who claims he stays up nights studying toy safety regulations and who has served on the ASTM F963-17 committee for almost 15 years, has been at the forefront of fighting the "whack-a-mole" game of counterfeit and knockoff products that try to pass off as his company’s toys.
In November 2021, Muderick, who also serves as a local council member in Pennsylvania, testified before Congress in favor of passing the INFORM Act. He told federal legislators that his staff can spend up to 20 hours per week sending out requests to Amazon to remove counterfeit products from the mammoth online commerce website trying to pass off as his brand.
“Citizens and business owners need to share their experiences with legislators,” said Muderick. “If we assume that someone else will say something then it is likely no one will, and our democratic process will suffer as a result. Until there is new legislation from Congress, we will continue to play the 'whack-a-mole' game to keep on top of potentially dangerous counterfeiters. Hopefully, my testimony, along with others, will help improve our laws and lead to a better safer outcome for consumers.”
Muderick said ASTM committee members such as himself work to not only try to anticipate the possible uses of a toy but also all the potential for abuse and mishandling that could endanger children to chemicals locked inside a toy’s construction.
“It is a global and international effort that has dramatically improved the safety of play for children across the entire world.”
But understanding the risks in chemical-laden toys is merely scratching the surface of all the harmful chemicals that people are exposed to in daily life, in and out of their homes. The Ecology Center of Ann Arbor launched a program called Healthy Stuff after it was discovered in 2005 by the non-partisan U.S. Government Accountability Office that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since 1979 required testing for fewer than 200 of the 62,000 chemicals used in commerce and the EPA has only restricted five chemical groups in the last 29 years.
Healthy Stuff discovered that 42 percent of 700 popular toys contained PVCs.
“In the beginning, we looked at chemical hazards in an array of consumer products,” said Jeff Gearhart, Ecology Center research director. “Children’s products were one of the first categories we evaluated.”
Gearhart explained that the work of The Ecology Center and other environmental researchers around the country identified high levels of lead in these toys that eventually resulted in the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.
This law amended the Consumer Product Safety Act to provide the CPSC with significant new regulatory and enforcement tools. CPSIA addresses lead, phthalates, toy safety, and third-party testing and certification.
Gearhart said such revisions are capable of quick and dramatic results, as evidenced by a sharp drop in lead detected in children’s products in the years after the revised law was enacted.
“The follow-up testing we did years later prove the revised regulations had a real-world impact on the amount of lead that was showing up in toys and we considered that a victory and proof of the importance of having leadership on regulations at the federal level.”
Gearhart agrees with the findings of the Chemicals of Concern study and that there must be an across-the-board reduction in using fossil fuels to make household goods, furnishings, clothing, and other things that are part of consumer's daily lives. Toys are just one source of chemical-laden products that a child will encounter in their lifetime.
“Toys are one part of a broader environment that a child inhabits. The one thing babies and small children interact with, even more than toys, is flooring. If it is made with synthetic material, it is laden with chemicals. I understand the concern people have around toys, but The Ecology Center also wants to educate the potential hazards that are in furniture, flooring, and certain finishes. Routes of exposure in addition to a child putting a toy in their mouth include inhaling or ingesting dust that contains plastic additives. “
Gearhart said the public must be concerned about the overall life cycle of plastic products – from how they are produced, used and disposed of, and regulatory bodies must also reflect the hazards of plastics throughout this life cycle if policies are to truly have a positive impact on health and the environment.
“There must be a cosmic shift in our buying habits as well as regulatory policy. None of this is going to be easy,” he noted. “When you think about the toxic nature of plastic products – how they are produced, how they are used, and where they end up when we are done with them – we must consider the toxic impact right along with the overall climate impact of using global warming pollutants.”
Gearhart said it was once thought that purchasing plastic toys made from polymers did not have a direct impact on the climate.
“But I actually think it's very direct, and becoming more direct every day,” he said. “One of the things we have to think about as consumers are, what are the broader impacts of our consumption decisions directly on our health in how we are exposing ourselves to chemicals from plastics in our homes and offices, but what are the global impacts on these consumption patterns? I just want to encourage folks that even small decisions at the consumer level do make a difference.”