Just what you need: homework to do before you run out to buy that train set or action figure on your loved one's wish list. Surely it goes without saying that if it's made for a child, it should be manufactured with materials that are safe for a child. But that's not always the case, experts say.
A series of massive toy recalls in the last few years has drawn attention to the need for tighter regulations on chemicals and materials used in children's toys. Most famously, in 2007, Mattel — the largest toy company in the world and the brand behind such household names as Ken and Barbie — recalled more than 2 million toys that were in violation of the U.S. standards for lead in paint. The total recall count that year because of lead paint violations: more than 17 million.
The U.S. government has since adopted a handful of regulatory measures to hold companies more accountable and to tighten restrictions on the use of toxic substances. But there are many toxic chemicals in toys that are not regulated at all, says Rachel Massey, a policy analyst at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell and a coauthor of a November study on gaps in regulation of toxic substances in toys and children's products. Cases highlighted in the media for violation of standards are just "the tip of the iceberg," she says.
About 80,000 chemicals are used in manufacturing, many in toys and other children's products. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the government agency responsible for protecting the public from hazards in consumer products, regulates only 14 chemicals in toys: eight heavy metals and six phthalates, which are used to soften plastic. The phthalates, which have been linked to reproductive and developmental abnormalities in animal studies, have been restricted only since 2008. Toy companies, unlike food manufacturers, are not required to divulge what's in their products.
"There's virtually no accountability or transparency," says Michael Wilson, an environmental health scientist at UC Berkeley.
One of the main problems is that children, particularly those younger than 3, often put toys in their mouths or otherwise use toys in ways that they were not intended. But even older children can be at risk due to behaviors such as sucking on a necklace. Experts agree that until a comprehensive U.S. policy is in place to identify and disclose all toxic ingredients, consumers should (A) not panic and (B) do some research before joining the throngs of holiday shoppers.
• Avoid buying costume jewelry for children. As lead has come under closer scrutiny, cadmium is increasingly being used as a substitute for lead in paint, toys and children's jewelry. Cadmium is a neurotoxin and carcinogen that children can be exposed to when they handle, suck or swallow the product. In January, the CPSC recalled a large quantity of children's costume jewelry because it was found to contain high levels of cadmium.
• Avoid purchasing vinyl products, also known as PVC (for polyvinyl chloride) when possible. These are several times more likely to contain hazardous additives compared with other plastics, says Jeff Gearhart, research director for HealthyStuff.org, a consumer product testing website. Items made with synthetic leather, such as kids' baseball gloves, often contain vinyl. Vinyl products may also include certain balls, children's bracelets and other rubbery and flexible items.
• Inspect the plastic labeling and product packaging and look for the familiar triangular recycling symbol containing a "3" with a "V" underneath the symbol. The labeling is not universal but is used on a significant number of vinyl products. Flexible, rubbery plastic products that emit a distinct odor are often good indicators that the product contains a vinyl plasticizer, Gearhart says. The Center for Health, Environment and Justice has a PVC-free guide.
• Don't buy brightly colored plastics when purchasing items that a young child might put in his or her mouth. Despite the recent tightening of federal regulations, these plastics could contain cadmium, lead, organotins or other toxic pigments or stabilizers, Massey says.
• Consult sites such as Healthystuff.org and Goodguide.com to find out if certain toys contain brominated flame retardants (BFRs) — found in baby products, such as mattress pads, and toys, such as dolls, swords, action figures and ones made of foam and rubber. BFRs have been linked to a number of adverse health effects, and one family of BFRs is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Healthystuff.org and Goodguide.com both screen for bromine, which is a likely indicator of BFRs. Choose products that have low or no bromine content.