After reading the online warning of a Beijing mom who found balloons in Sanlitun containing flammable gases instead of helium, I decided to look further into the issue of toy safety in China. Countless products manufactured here are exported to toy stores around the world, but how certain can parents be that those for sale in Beijing meet international safety standards?
I soon found myself on a path to some shocking discoveries, at the center of which was a website set up by the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), a collective of environmental and health NGOs. Its online database reveals a host of seemingly innocuous toys and school supplies available in China containing worrying levels of heavy metals. Users can browse the potentially harmful children’s products (as well as cosmetics and household goods), many of which can be found in popular markets and supermarkets here in the capital.
The blacklist is the result of an IPEN study carried out in conjunction with the environmental charity Greenpeace back in 2011. But despite the shocking and important findings, it appears to have been poorly-publicized at the time of release. Only a handful of media picked up the story and this was the first that we’d heard of this invaluable resource.
Take for instance, this friendly-looking panda doll bought at Hongqiao Market. It was found to contain concerning levels of chromium and lead.
While this flashing ball from Carrefour in Fengtai District not only contained more than six times the lead discovered in the toy panda, but also worrying amounts of antimony and arsenic.
Other products were found to harbor a number of other harmful metals including mercury and cadmium. And because many of the toxic substances were found in the layers of paint, even the simplest of products, like toy cars, found their way on to the danger list.
When writing for beijingkids, I try not to be alarmist. Of course, this site had examples of dangerous toys but surely this had to be viewed in the context of the staggering number produced and sold in the capital each day? I had already started planning my blog post in my mind – bringing attention to the issue but reassuring parents that the majority of toy products made in China are perfectly safe.
But this soon turned out to be only marginally true. The study did find that the number of children’s products containing heavy metals constituted a minority. But only just.
In fact, of the 500 products children’s bought across China (Beijing and four other major cities), almost a third contained a worrying amount of at least one heavy metal.
So should the children of Beijing expats be confined to a toy-less youth, forced to make do with cardboard boxes and imagination?
The advice from Greenpeace on this matter is understandably vague, and reads:
“Consumers should carefully read product labels and try to identify chemical safety information before purchasing children’s products. Through their inquiries about corporate environmental policy and product chemical information, consumers can help drive companies to progressively reduce and ultimately eliminate hazardous chemicals from their products and production processes. Consumers should also support rigorous regulatory policies to limit the presence of toxic substances in products.” (www.greenpeace.org)
The sad fact of this matter is that it is very difficult to provide concrete advice on what parents can do to protect their children. To begin with, it is hard to ascertain the extent of the problem. And secondly, given that the presence of dangerous substances is imperceptible without X-ray scanning equipment, it is impossible for parents to know what is safe and what is not. So aside from lending your support to Greenpeace’s wider drive to improve standards, what can you do to protect your kids?
If you’re worried about products already purchased in China, use the IPEN website to browse by location (city and store/shopping mall) or product type. Names of manufacturers are featured alongside each product, so you may be able to cross-reference the worst offenders with your child’s existing toys.
When shopping in the future, you may also choose to avoid the markets listed on the site. It probably goes without saying that the more upmarket your shopping destination, the better the chance of finding safe toys. And while I am normally an advocate for independent retailers, it may also pay off to look for international toy brands.
But even this is not a guaranteed safe option. Global brands like Mattel have been forced into product recalls for heavy metal content though, as a rule, the strict quality controls placed on products exported to the US, Europe, and elsewhere make it more likely that big international manufacturers will comply with safe production standards.
Essentially, it is up to each parent to decide what precautions to take. But many may feel that a few tears at bedtime as you throw out some of your children’s favorite toys or having to turn down a kind offering from your ayi are prices worth paying.
Photos from www.ipen-china.org and Wikimedia Commons