Toxicity hazards cannot be identified by
visual inspection. Identifying a chemical hazard requires
chemically testing the product, a process not easily available to most
consumers. (We will discuss the value of inexpensive swab-type testing kits
later in this article.) For this reason, it is helpful to know what kinds of materials are most likely to
present a toxicity hazard and avoid them.
Chemical hazards in toys are most often due to lead
content, although there are isolated examples of poisoning by other substances
in toys intended for older children that are swallowed by infants and toddlers.
A majority of the toys recalled by the U.S. CPSC during the past 18 months were
taken off the market because of high lead content, and all but two of these were made in
China. One each came from Taiwan and South Korea. In developing economies, where
the ethical and political regulatory environment is still catching up to that of
the developed Western nations, lead is probably still in widespread use as an
inexpensive and easy-to-use industrial feedstock.
Lead is poisonous to the nervous system, especially
while it is developing throughout gestation, childhood and into the teens.
Despite the limits set by the CPSC and other authorities, there is no safe lower
rate of exposure, since lead accumulates in the nervous system and in
bone. More detail about the dangers of lead poisoning may be read at
previous article, I provided links to some of the many news articles
reporting discoveries of lead in Chinese toys, as well as other chemical
contaminants in a variety of products including drugs, pet
foods, and farm-raised fish. This probably came about due to the difficulty of
detecting these hazards without lab testing and enforced regulation, which until
very recently have been effectively nonexistent in Chinese industry. This has
been compounded by complacency and greed among importers and lack of adequate
inspection in the U. S. and elsewhere.
It is important to keep in mind the distinction between
defective materials and poor quality manufacture, due not only to greed but also to ignorance
of correct industrial methods, and hazards designed into the product. The former
is mostly the fault of the overseas factory, although unrealistic demands for
low cost by American importers contribute to it. The latter is largely the
fault of the American importer, who is responsible for designing and
specifying safe, functional, and age-appropriate products.
Top of this page
Chinese imports: And now for the good news
Although there have been recalls for chemical hazards
of consumer products other than toys coming from a variety of nations including
China, when it comes to toys, the label "Made in China" must at this
time serve as
a red flag. There have been nearly no recalls of toys coming from elsewhere in the world, including and most notably Thailand,
the other Asian nation with a large and well-developed toy industry. In fact, Thailand
has had a sophisticated and modern wood products manufacturing industry for many
years, and makes some of the safest, sturdiest, and best-designed wooden toys in the
world. Some of our toys are made in Thailand, including the doll houses
and furniture, some of our toddler furniture and play kitchen, and some of our
wooden unit block sets.
The Chinese government, aware of the potentially
disastrous effect these problems may have on their export-driven economy, have
started to require laboratory testing of exports before they may be shipped. The
government has also closed down hundreds of smaller sub-contracting factories
who have been causing much of the problem. However, they have far too few
laboratories to do all the testing. The result has been the inability of many
importers to get their products shipped in a timely fashion. One we know
had almost no inventory to ship from during the 2007 Holiday season. Since
October, 2007, we have had occaional problems with timely availability of
products from our American suppliers who
import, with no guarantee as to when we may receive them. They, in turn, are
having trouble scheduling shipments from overseas.
The results will ultimately be safer toys at higher
prices. The factories in China are going to have to charge more, as they begin
using only more expensive, safer materials and better processes. I would
suggest that Chinese toys be purchased with caution and awareness of potential
hazards for at least another year or so while all the toys now in
inventory are either sold or are identified as hazardous and destroyed. I do
believe that the problems with imported toys will be much reduced by then.
In the United States
American importers with Chinese sources are also
playing a part in reducing potential hazards in toys, or are at least claiming
that they are. One of our vendors, Guidecraft, has a program in place
that comes very close to my personal standards of scientific verification.
Guidecraft makes some of the furniture
kitchens we sell. The design, both cosmetic and structural, is
excellent, the manufacturing quality has alway been good with an occasional
disappointing exception, and now they are testing their paint finishes in a
manner that even I approve of. The paint for each purchase order is
specified as a separate batch and laboratory tested in China. These
results are verified by sampling the finished product as it arrives in the
United States, to be certain that the tested paint was actually used to make the
toys. This is the protocol that should be followed as a minimum
standard. Guidecraft has factories in China and Thailand.
Here is what you can do to avoid chemical hazard
You cannot identify toys with high
lead content or other chemicals by visual inspection, but you can identify and avoid
the kinds of products where
toxic chemicals might be found, and feel secure purchasing other toys where such
chemicals are not likely or cannot be present. You can also do testing at home
with some degree of accuracy.
I recommend the use of Lead Check swab test kits. (http://www.leadcheck.com). Lead
in most products is added deliberately as stabilizer or pigment, and is in sufficient quantity to be detected
with reasonable reliability with simple swab tests. Note that although a
false positive is very unlikely, a negative result does not guarantee the
absence of lead, merely that the lead content is below approximately 600
The mass media have been very unhelpful in uncritically reporting the
of the toy industry to the effect that these tests are not valid, based on a
biased reading of a flawed and altogether unscientific "experiment"
conduct by the CPSC. If used correctly, swab tests can detect lead concentration as
low as 600 parts per million (the CPSC maximum permitted concentration) on
product surfaces. As of February 2009, these limits will be reduced, until a
level of 100 ppm becomes law in August, 2011, so swab tests cannot be used to
determine if a toys is "legal".
Top of this page
Where lead and other toxic chemicals may be found, and where they won't be
Lead and other toxic chemicals, if they are
present, are most likely to be found in paint and cheap cast metal products,
especially jewelry, Vinyl may contain lead (alway a hazard), and always contains phthalates,
which are a hazard primarily when ingested by infants and toddlers. Lead in
products that are to be handled without protection is an unacceptable risk for
people of any age. Other less-toxic materials may be aceptable if they add
functionality to products for children old enough to know how to use them
Toys that rely on some sort of chemical process in
order to work are hazardous to young children that put things in their mouths,
but generally not to older children. Examples are "science kits",
glues, paints, and other craft supplies.
Toys that contain sealed liquids may be hazardous
depending on the nature of the liquid and the sturdiness and reliability of the
material containing the liquid. There are some odd
examples of inappropriate and dangerous materials used in unexpected
applications. An example: in July, 2007, a "flashing eyeball" toy was
recalled because the eyes were filled with kerosene, an obvious chemical hazard
in case of breakage or leaks. What were they thinking?
Cheap cast metal jewelry or
other metal toys
Lead is an inexpensive material that melts at a low
temperature and is soft and easy to work. This makes it a good choice
from the standpoint of easy profit-making, but it is still a very bad choice in
regard to chemical safety. Lead jewelry is likely to be found in vending
machines and as prizes, as well as in the general retail toy market. I would
simply suggest that you not let your children have anything like that.
Another hazard is that such items are inherently made of small parts, and are a
hazard per se regardless of composition if they fall into the hands of
toddlers. One advantage you have here is that toys actually made from lead
are very easy to detect with swab-type kits, as long as you test not only the
surface but also the substrate, by scraping through any layers of surface
material before testing.
Lead compounds have been the preferred colorants in
paints for centuries worldwide. It is only in recent decades that the awareness
of their dangers motivated regulation and switching to other kinds of pigments
in the developed world. Not until 1978 did the CPSC banned the use of lead in
paint for residential use. Lead pigments were, of course, used in American toys
and other products as well as housepaint until the 60's or 70's. Thus it
is not surprising that lead-pigmented paints are being used by Chinese
manufacturers. Much of the problem has been caused by small mom-&-pop
subcontract operations who switch formulas on the big factories without
warning. Hundreds of them have been shut down by the Chinese
Although things are getting better, it may be wise to avoid
painted toys made in China unless you can verify their safety. Turnertoys
sells some of these toys, and we do take steps to verify safety and explain our
reasoning to you. (See
Anything we keep in inventory we have tested with
LeadCheck swab test kits. High levels of lead can reliably be detected
with these kits if they are used correctly. These kits are available for home
use. For the larger drop-shipped items where
we cannot inspect each item that goes out, we ask for descriptions of the
quality control program and decide whether we can endorse it. We also obtain
copies of lab test reports.
The only other drop-shipped toys we have that are
painted in China are the steel pedal cars.
We had a chance to inspect our vendors' (Warehouse 36 and American Retro)
products at the New York Toy Fair last month, and they have switched to
polyester powder coating. This finish is not only far more durable than
paint, it is a high-tech coating that is not typically formulated with lead or
other heavy metals. This is a new development since last year, and more good
An unpainted toy cannot present a hazard from lead
pigment no matter where it is made, although some unpainted materials may
contain lead, notably the two discussed below. A wooden toy
that is simply lacquered or varnished ("natural" wood) or is
unfinished (plain wood) cannot contain any toxic substance.
Products made from vinyl (PVC) or certain other plastics
Despite Vinyl industry claims, it appears that vinyl,
or Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) may still sometimes be stabilized with lead, at
least in products made in China. One of the most spectacular infant product
hazards recently reported was the vinyl feeding bibs with very high lead
content. PVC among plastics is uniquely dependent upon plasticizers,
i.e., phthalates, and stabilizers such as lead or other metallic
compounds for its flexibility and stability. Both the plasticizers and
stabilizers are emitted by PVC during use, and are available for ingestion,
either when the object is placed in the mouth, or through contact with hands
which are placed in the mouth. There has not been recent evidence of lead in
American-formulated PVC used for children's products, although there were infant
deaths due to lead-stabilized PVC in U.S.-made mini-blinds in the
"phthalates" have been common on radio lately. These
shows have been unhelpful and uninformative because they never say where
phthalates occur. Phtalates are used almost exclusively in
PVC. A general discussion of the danger of "plastics"
which suggests they universally contain dangerous chemicals is simply
Even if poisonous lead is not present in PVC, there is
now sufficient evidence that phthalates cause pathological alterations in
the sexual development of male mammals to suggest that products made from PVC
not be used for objects that may end up in a child's mouth or be ingested by
pregnant women. This applies most
strongly to the period including gestation up to about 12 months.
(1. Gray LE Jr, Ostby J, Furr J, Price M, Veeramachaneni DN, Parks L.
Perinatal exposure to the phthalates DEHP, BBP, and DINP,
but not DEP, DMP, or DOTP, alters sexual differentiation of the male rat. Toxicol
Sci. 2000 Dec;58(2):350-65
2. Wade V. Welshons, Susan C. Nagel and Frederick S. vom Saal
Large Effects from Small Exposures. III. Endocrine Mechanisms Mediating Effects of Bisphenol A at Levels of Human Exposure.
Endocrinology Vol. 147, No. 6 s56-s69
3. Ramos JG, Varayoud J, Sonnenschein C, Soto AM, Muñoz De Toro M, Luque EH.
Prenatal exposure to low doses of bisphenol A alters the periductal stroma and glandular cell function in the rat ventral prostate.
Biology of Reproduction. 2001 Oct;65(4):1271-7
Although manufacturers have resisted inquiries about
the types of plastics used for infant toys, that resistance is softening.
I suggest you determine what kind of materials are used in the plastic toys you
are buying for infants and very young children. Insist on knowing or do not buy
it. Polyethylene and polypropylene are acceptable safe subsitutes. For teething
toys, washable cloth or unfinished wood toys
http://www.turnertoys.com/wood_rattle.htm are acceptable, as are crackers, carrots, cold washcloths, or toast.
Polycarbonate, the hard clear plastic often used
for utensils, dishware, and bottles, is also unsuitable for very young children.
The basic monomer compound used to make polycarbonate is Bisphenol-A, a
synthetic estrogen, and the plastic has been shown to degrade into this compound
with aging. It has been shown in mammals to interfere with sexual
(Complete information at
Top of this page
Finding subsititutes for Vinyl and Polycarbonate
Consider using stainless steel or glass for food
handling, along with silicone for bottle nipples or pacifiers.
"Silicone rubber" can have all sorts of additives, including PVC, so
be sure to use medical grade silicone only! Buy only known brands that specify
this. Polypropylene or polyethylene are widely used in molded plastic toys, and
are inherently chemically safe, as well as strong and durable.
Soft (i.e., very high phthalate plasticizer content)
PVC has long been used as a fabric or leather substitute in many applications,
especially where ease of cleaning is desired. This is a bad choice of
materials for young children. In children's furniture
coverings, bibs, crib mats, soft toys, backpacks, and so on, consider using
cloth and doing a little more washing and cleaning. Like many other things
in life, it involves a tradeoff.
A relatively new polymer, Polyethersulfone, or PES, is
now being used by a few manufacturers as a replacement for polycarbonate.
It is so chemically inert and non-toxic that it is used for laboratory-grade
filters; it is clear, tough, and so heat resistant it can be sterilized
repeatedly with no degradation. It requires no additives. I have found a company
that makes PES baby bottles with medical grade silicone nipples (http://www.greentogrow.com
). There are several other companies now making PES bottles.
We considered selling these PES baby bottles. However, I
decided that the old standby, glass baby bottles, just cannot be beat.
They are a known safe alternative, and there is a brand that is wrapped in
a shock-absorbing synthetic rubber jacket, which greatly reduces breakage
Added February 2010:
After the CPSIA 2008 (see article CPSC
publishes stronger limits on lead) was signed into law, it was the
responsibility of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to translate the
law into enforceable regulation. During the period of public comment (which
continues), original enforcement dates have been postponed at least once, due to
testimony by manufacturers and retailers regarding the unwarranted hardships
imposed by the regulations as originally proposed.
Top of this page