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Presents That Hurt

Protect Children from Toxic Toys This Holiday Season

a baby sitting on an infant chair, biting on a toy.
Researchers answer questions about how to purchase safe toys this holiday season.

By Karen Angelo

Purchasing toys brings joy to those we love. Yet millions of recalls show that our well-intended gifts may be bringing hidden health risks as well.

The U.S. government recalled more than 17 million toys due to high levels of lead in 2007 and 12 million promotional drinking glasses in June 2010 because the painted coating contained cadmium, a toxic metal. While the numbers are alarming, these recalls represent only the tip of the iceberg.

Rachel Massey of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, Sally Edwards of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, and Monica Becker, a fellow of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, co-authored the article “Toxic Chemicals in Toys and Children’s Productions: Limitations of Current Responses and Recommendations for Government and Industry” in the Nov. 1 issue of Environmental Science & Technology.

They recommended actions for government and industry that include a consumers’ “right to know” labeling system, banning or restricting the use of chemicals with well-documented toxicity and developing testing systems.

While these solutions may sound like good ideas for the future, what should parents do to protect their children today?

Massey, Edwards and Becker suggest you consider the following:

How are children more at risk of toxics than adults?

Children are at a higher risk of exposure from toxic chemicals because of their rapidly growing bodies and frequent hand-to-mouth activity that creates an easy pathway for toxics to enter the body.

Why are toxic chemicals in toys?

The EPA lists more than 80,000 chemicals in commerce but only a few have been tested for safety. Although an updated 2008 federal law regulates lead and other heavy metals and phthalates in toys, it does not require toy manufacturers to test for many other chemicals found in children’s products.

What types of products typically contain toxics?

Cheap metal jewelry can contain lead or cadmium. You should caution your children, including teenagers, not to put jewelry in their mouths. The updated law is having a positive impact on restricting lead and phthalates in toys; however, toxic heavy metals are still being found in children's products, brominated flame retardants may be found in foam-based products and carcinogenic azo dyes may be found in textile-based products such as dolls or stuffed animals.

What should consumers do to avoid toxic products?

This is clearly a case of “buyer beware.” Consider purchasing fewer toys of a higher quality, such as unpainted wooden toys. Avoid children’s metallic costume jewelry, toys with small magnets and batteries that could be ingested and older flexible plastic toys that may contain phthalate softeners.

Do research before shopping. The Ecology Center tests toys and other consumer products for the presence of six chemicals that can be detected with an X-ray fluorescence sensor. Check out the database that provides a rating for each product.

Another good resource is GoodGuide, a database of more than 65,000 products, including toys, food, and household and personal care products.

Another excellent website for cosmetics and personal care products that are commonly given as gifts during the holidays is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. Use this resource to check whether a cosmetic product contains toxic chemicals before you buy it.

What type of legislation would help protect children?

Instead of piecemeal legislation that reacts to the latest recall, we need a stronger common-sense rule such as “toys shouldn’t contain any chemical that is known to cause cancer or reproductive disorders.” An encouraging sign is that the European Union and a few states are enacting these types of laws which could become a model for the federal government.