How to Avoid Toxic Toys and Choose Safer Ones

By DONNA DeFORBES/ecoRI News contributor

A child’s exposure to chemicals is far greater than an adult’s. Their small, developing organs are more susceptible to absorbing environmental elements and sustaining damage, particularly since their bodies are less able to excrete chemicals. Yet, toxins surround children daily, including their toys.

We might assume that all toys available for sale are safe, but that’s not necessarily true. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) doesn’t test every toy you see on the shelf, and, according to HealthyStuff.org, “the U.S. government doesn’t require full testing of chemicals before they are added to most consumer products.”

It’s not enough to avoid buying products from China, where safety standards are lax and one in three toys contains heavy metals. The 2013 U.S. PIRG report, “Trouble in Toyland,” found that even with updated federal safety standards some toys sneak through the system. Two examples were the Captain America Soft Shield, found to contain 29 times the lead limit, and the Ninja Turtles Pencil Case, which had excessive toxic levels of cadmium and banned phthalates.

Toxins and their effects
There's a long list of chemicals found in toys and myriad other household items that are of high concern to children’s health. Many can have questionable and lasting side effects. Here are a few toxins commonly found in toys.

Phthalates. A group of chemicals typically used in plastics or as solvents. While some phthalates have been banned, a few common ones you might see on product labels include: BPA (Bisphenol A), DBP (dibutyl phthalate), DMP (dimethyl phthalate) and BBzP (benzyl butyl phthalate). Widely known as “endocrine disruptors,” the health effects of phthalates include damage to the liver and kidneys, birth defects, asthma and early puberty.

Phthalates are found in myriad children’s items, including baby wipes, teething rings, plastic toys, inflatables, soft lunch boxes and school supplies.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC). A human carcinogen, PVC is known as the “poison plastic” — usually plastics labeled as No. 3. The manufacturing and incineration of PVC releases dioxins into the atmosphere and soil — dioxins we end up inhaling and consuming later on. These chemicals pollute natural resources and can lead to cancer, birth defects, diabetes, endometriosis and immune system problems.

PVC is common in pacifiers, flexible plastic toys, raincoats, shoes, kiddie swimming pools and artificial Christmas trees.

Cobalt. In one recent report, cobalt — an element used for blue coloration — was the most common substance among toy manufacturers. While cobalt can be beneficial to health — it’s part of vitamin B12 — excessive exposure can lead to lung damage, heart problems and dermatitis.

Cobalt has been found in plastic building blocks, baby bibs, ride-on toys, pencil cases, kids jewelry and baby changing mats.

Ethylene glycol. You may recognize it as antifreeze, yet this industrial solvent is also used in the manufacturing of polyester and plastics. High levels of ethylene glycol may affect kidney function, the nervous system and heart.

Ethylene glycol has been found in dolls, soft toys, dress-up costumes, games and plastic water bottles.

Other chemicals commonly found in toys, and the health issues they have been linked to, include: arsenic (cancer, impaired fetal development), cadmium (kidney and lung damage), mercury (impaired neurological development), antimony (gastrointestinal problems, lung damage), bromine (birth defects) and lead (neurological damage, anemia).

How to find safer toys
If you’re concerned about the chemicals in your child’s toys, you can choose ones made with safer, natural materials such as solid wood (unfinished or with a non-toxic finish), hemp, organic cotton, wool or natural rubber.

Try to avoid children’s soft plastic toys made before 2009 in the United States, or 2006 in Europe, as they likely contain higher levels of phthalates. This might mean refusing older hand-me-down toys.

When shopping, look for PVC- and BPA-free products. Avoid plastics labeled No. 3 or with a “V” inside the chasing arrows symbol (PVC) or No. 7 (polycarbonate). Typically, squishy or flexible plastics — think rubber duckies and baby dolls — are likely to contain PVC. Give the toy a sniff — PVC usually has an odor like vinyl shower curtains.

Rhode Island resident Donna DeForbes is founder of Eco-Mothering.com, a blog that explores ways to make going green fun and easy for the whole family. She is a contributor to Earth911, MammaBaby and author of the e-book “The Guilt-Free Guide to Greening Your Holidays.”