As soon as they have the motor control to accomplish it, everything a baby encounters goes straight in their mouth. From gumming toys to soothe teething pains, to absentmindedly chewing on a pen, kids of all ages put plastics in their mouths on a daily basis. This week, The Guardian reports that counterfeit plastic toys imported from China to the UK contain dangerous levels of phthalates, a type of Endocrine Disrupting Chemical (EDC).
For a previous beijingkids article on toxic toys containing unsafe quantities of heavy metals, click here.
What are EDCs?
International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) explains that EDCs are manufactured chemicals that interfere with the body’s normal hormonal functioning. (IPEN) is a collective of 700 environmental and public health groups with a mission to create chemicals policies and practices that protect human health and the environment. There are over 85,000 classifications of manufactured chemicals, and IPEN says thousands of these are suspected of being dangerous for humans.
People are exposed to EDCs through ingestion, application on the skin, inhalation, and in vitro transfer from mother to baby, or vice versa.
EDCs, found in many manufactured products, disrupt normal hormonal functioning by mimicking or blocking naturally occurring hormones; either by triggering or preventing biological processes. Most people are aware of the damaging actions of EDCs on normal estrogen functioning, which can for example cause feminizing in boys.
What are Phthalates?
Phthalates are chemical softeners, used to make plastic more pliable. If ingested, either by being chewed or by leaching into food or by contaminating liquids, phthalates are associated with negative effects on the development of the male reproductive system and in disrupting masculine neurological development. Phthalates have also been linked to cancer, obesity, liver damage, allergies, diabetes, and ADHD.
Phthalates in Children’s Toys
The use of phthalates is restricted in both the European Union (EU) and US, where they must make up less than 0.1 percent of plasticized parts of toys. Toys manufactured in China, and tested by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CSTI) in the UK contained 18 times the legal limit. A lead officer for product safety at the CSTI told The Guardian that,
"Phthalates are carcinogenic, mutagenic and can cause reproductive problems but, despite legislation to the contrary, significant amounts of these substances can be found in a wide range of toys and child care products. If these toys fall into the hands of very young children or babies, it’s more likely they will chew on the plastic and consume the chemicals."
Advice for Parents
If you’re buying toys for your children this Christmas, what can you do to protect them? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when even the big names in toy manufacturing have been found to include unsafe toxins in their toys. Mattel, for example, has withdrawn millions of toys (which had been manufactured in China) over multiple product recalls because their toys contained illegal levels of toxins.
However, in general, global toy giants will have to abide by stricter US and EU legislation. So avoid buying toys at prices that are too good to be true, and cast a critical eye over packaging and presentation. If it looks cheap or fake, don’t buy it.
Environmental watchdog non-profit ecoRI Inc. has the following advice for parents:
- Choose toys made from natural materials such as raw, solid wood, and organic fibers
- Avoid toys manufactured before legislation to limit toxins in them was introduced (2009 in the US, 2006 in the EU)
- Look for PVC- and BPA-free products