Beyond Lead: Toxins in Toys

Image: toys scattered on couch. Topic: Beyond Lead: Toxins in Toys

Michael Rainville of Maple Landmark Woodcraft, a Vermont green toy manufacturer, has never seen business pick up as fast as it has in the last couple months. “We are phenomenally busy,” he says. “We’re scrambling to figure out how to meet demand.”

Rainville knows why there is renewed interest in the colorful wooden trains, buses, and cars he sells—the recalls of hundreds of thousands of Chinese-made toys containing lead paint last summer were a surprising wake-up call to many parents.

“There’s a lot of fright over the fact that there are issues parents weren’t aware of before with conventional toys,” says Rainville.

When parents ask persistent questions about whether Maple Landmark is truly manufacturing in the US, Rainville offers to hold up the phone “so they can hear the saws running and know we’re making the toys under one roof.” He then tells parents about the company’s other sustainable features: the toys are all made from sustainably harvested Vermont wood. Safe paints and finishes range from beeswax coatings to colorful lacquers. In addition, Maple Landmark packs its toys in secondhand boxes and shipping materials, and takes care to recycle whenever possible. It donates its scrap wood to farmers for sawdust bedding and to locals for kindling.

Once parents learn about everything the company does to ensure safety and sustainability, they’re reassured that Maple Landmark toys will be safe for their kids, says Rainville. If you’re wondering how to ensure that the children in your life only play with safe toys, we’re here to help. We’ve gathered some of the most important considerations in selecting safe toys.

Toxins in Toys, Legally

Toys sold in the US are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which enforces federal standards for children’s products. General laws regulating all products concern sharp points or edges, parts small enough for a child to swallow, and lead in paint, according to Consumer Reports. Unfortunately, this does not mean that the government tests toys for safety before they go on the market.

On the contrary, the CPSC is “entirely reactive,” says Ruth Ann Norton, the former executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning (CECLP, part of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative). Once a toy is already on store shelves, toy manufacturers are required to report to the CPSC if it causes any injuries or deaths, and consumers may submit reports, as well. The government’s current recall mechanism is exclusively “complaint driven,” explains Norton: the CPSC collects reports and may issue a recall of a toy it deems unsafe.

Regardless of what is legally permissible in the US, Norton says, toys made in China or other developing countries carry a higher risk of containing chemicals that are illegal than toys made in the US, Canada, or the European Union (EU), because dangerous chemicals are less well-regulated in these countries.

Lead Paint

Though there is no comprehensive US ban on lead in toys, it is illegal for the paint to contain more than 0.06 percent concentration lead, and with good reason. When ingested, lead can cause nerve damage, learning and behavioral problems, reproductive damage, and irreversible brain damage. It can also increase the risk of cancer.

Legal limits notwithstanding, several high- profile toy recalls over the summer revealed that some toys made in China and sold to families in the US contained illegal and dangerous levels of lead. The levels of lead in some of the toys recalled by the Mattel Corporation were as high as 11 percent, 180 times the legal limit.

Some states have banned lead in children’s products entirely, and a stricter federal standard for both lead levels and testing of imported toys may be forthcoming from Congress, says Norton. Meanwhile, she suggests that parents follow the motto posted in her office: “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Unfortunately, the test kits for detecting lead in homes can’t be reliably used by parents to test toys, and laboratory tests of toys destroy the toys. If you do have concerns that your child may have been exposed to lead, have your health care provider conduct a blood test. If the test shows elevated levels of lead, the child can take medicine that brings down lead levels to prevent further damage.

How to steer clear of lead:

  • Avoid painted toys made before 1978, because before lead paint was banned in toys, residential structures, and hospitals that year, it was used commonly in paints in the US.
  • Imported painted toys carry a higher lead risk because lead is less well-regulated in many developing countries. Choose toys manufactured in the US, Canada, or the EU.
  • Show caution around any imported toy with flaking paint, in particular.
  • The CECLP advises parents to avoid fake painted pearls, including Mardi Gras beads, and cheap children’s jewelry of the type sold in vending machines or given away as party favors. A 2006 study by Ashland University researchers found that 70 percent of the 20 cheap toy jewelry samples they tested contained illegal levels of lead, only three of which have been subsequently recalled.

PVC & Phthalates

Polyvinyl chloride plastic, known as PVC or vinyl and identifiable by a #3 or “V” symbol, is so toxic for people and the planet at every point in its lifecycle that some activists call it by another name: the “poison plastic.”

Of particular concern for children’s health are vinyl toys such as teethers, “rubber duckies,” beach balls, and bath books. These are often made of a flexible vinyl that has been softened using “plasticizer” chemicals called phthalates. (Lead has also been found in some children’s vinyl products, such as bibs.)

Children’s polymer clays such as Fimo and Sculpey also have been found to contain trace amounts of phthalates. Phthalates can leach out of PVC products, especially when hot food is served in plastic containers and when children put PVC toys like teethers in their mouths. Studies have identified phthalates as a hormone disrupter. Phthalates may also cause liver and kidney lesions, a higher risk of certain cancers, and may exacerbate asthma and allergies in children.

PVC also creates dangerous chemicals throughout its lifecycle: making PVC releases carcinogens such as vinyl chloride and dioxins, and incinerating PVC generates carcinogenic dioxin. Because phthalates harm a person through total exposure from many sources, it’s hard to measure the harm likely to be caused by particular PVC toys. However, many experts, including those at the nonprofit Healthy Child Healthy World, say it pays to be cautious. The EU, 12 countries, and the state of California have banned or restricted the use of phthalates in children’s products, and some US toy manufacturers have enacted voluntary bans.

How to steer clear of PVCs and Phthalates:

  • Avoid PVC plastic: Unfortunately, most plastic toys don’t carry clear information about the type of plastic they’re made of, though some PVC toys may carry a #3 or the word “vinyl.” A number of toy companies have pledged to begin phasing PVC out of their toys, but IKEA is the only major retailer that has already completely phased out PVC.

Mike Schade, the PVC Campaign Coordinator for the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ) recommends e-mailing toy companies directly to ask if a particular toy contains vinyl; he’s found that most respond within a day or so. Instead of toys that contain vinyl/PVC, choose toys made of alternative materials, including FSC-certified wood, natural fabric, or plastics #1, 2, 4, and 5.

Clear Plastics and Bisphenol A

Bisphenol-A (#7) is legally used to make transparent, hard, unbreakable plastic products, such as baby bottles and “sippy” cups, and CD jewel cases. Very small amounts of this chemical have been shown to cause serious reproductive damage in mice, especially when the exposure occurs in utero. Exposure may cause prostate cancer, breast cancer, female infertility, and obesity.

How to steer clear of bad plastics and BPA:

The Natural Resources Defense Council advises parents to avoid polycarbonate (#7) plastic. When in doubt about items you already own, call the manufacturer and ask. If you notice that a clear plastic bottle or cup has become worn, or that the clear plastic of a toy has become cloudy, that may be evidence of off-gassing bisphenol-A. Throw it out.

Instead, choose baby bottles and spill-proof cups made of glass or polyethylene (#1, #2, #4 recycling symbols) or polypropylene (#5). To find safe bottles and sippy cups by brand name, consult the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s “Smart Plastics Guide."

Keep Recalls in Mind

When a manufacturer issues a toy recall, they may contact customers who purchased the toy online, or prevent shoppers from purchasing the toys still on store shelves. But it’s up to parents to scan the recall lists and notice if a toy recall applies to something your children play with.

To review toy recalls, visit or call the CPSC hotline, 800/638-2772. You can also report unsafe products to the CPSC via the hotline.

When it’s time to buy a new toy, the greenest companies are most often the safest. See our box at right for resources that can help you find toys that are safe for people and the planet.

Ruth Ann Norton at the CECLP admits that she sometimes imagines Barbie, Dora the Explorer, and Thomas the Tank Engine commiserating together somewhere in the aftermath of the massive recalls. “They’ve had a rough year,” she says. “But these are toys that kids love, and they can be made safely. Someday, they will be.