Poison Me Elmo? What Parents Can Do About Toxic Toys


    It has been a tough year for toys! Between lead paint, PVC and the choking hazards presented by tiny batteries and other parts, dipping into the toybox has become a death-defying act. Even such playroom stars as Elmo, Dora and Thomas the Tank Engine haven’t been spared the humiliation of being branded toxic.

   How is this possible? has become the bewildered question among parents, who were sure that someone was policing this to ensure that their children were safe. Even the toy giants — such as Mattel and Fisher-Price — have emerged red-faced, issuing recalls and reassurance that they’re doing what they can to prevent this from happening again. In the meantime, parents and Santa Claus are being presented with long wish lists from children who want the toys they see advertised during Saturday cartoons. Suddenly, holiday shopping is fraught with even more stress than usual.

   Truth is, many of the materials that go into manufacturing kids’ toys are hardly fun and games. Nor is it child’s play for the workers in developing world factories who are cranking out these products.

   According to Co-Op America, a not-for-profit group that encourages consumers to make responsible purchases, of the $30 billion spent on toys in 2003, roughly three-quarters was on products made in China, a country well documented for perpetuating sweatshop conditions. And the recalls frequently focus on imported toys coming from factories cavalier about the materials used. Clearly, parents need to be on guard.

   But what are we guarding against, exactly? And will we know it when we see it? Not always, which is why we must continue to press for legislation banning toxins in toys (and other products). And, as Mary Brune, founder of MOMS (Make Our Milk Safe), which focuses on protecting moms and children from toxic pollutants, says: “Retailers and manufacturers now have a fire under their butts to make sure their products are safe. As consumers, we have to keep fanning those flames to make sure they stick with it.”

   Meanwhile, we can certainly take steps toward protecting our children.

Here’s what to avoid:

PVC: The manufacture of PVC releases toxins into the air and water called dioxins, which enter the food chain and contaminate food sources. What’s more, two additives in PVC make it demonized in the environmental world — lead and phthalates.
Lead: even in the teensiest amounts, can impair brain development.

Phthalates: These ubiquitous chemicals are used to soften hard plastic. Phthalates have been linked to premature birth, early onset of puberty in girls, reduced sperm quality in males, and reproductive defects.

Bisphenol A: This hormone-disrupting chemical has been linked to Down syndrome, early onset of puberty, cancers, and a host of other conditions.

PBDEs (polybrominated diphenylethers): The purpose of these is to slow the spread of fire in many consumer products. But their use in baby products poses a threat to developing bodies and brains.

    And plastic toys aren’t the only ones that threaten to poison playtime. Stuffed toys are frequently full of synthetics or pesticide-soaked cottons. PVC is often used for the eyes and noses of stuffed animals.

   However, since manufacturers aren’t required to label products as containing toxic chemicals, and there’s an increasing influx of toys from China and other Asian countries that have no regulations around this, parents without a PhD in biochemistry are left puzzled. What’s more, in response to consumer concern, some manufacturers are labelling toys “phthalate free”. But according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the federal government doesn’t regulate the use of this label or ensure its accuracy. The PIRG commissioned its own test and found that of eight toys labelled phthalate free, six tested positive for detectable levels of phthalates.

   When toy shopping, consider these tips:

—Do the smell test. Toxic softeners in plastic often have that “beach ball” smell. Strong fragrances and perfumes can provoke allergies or asthma.

—Lean toward products that are fair-made from natural materials: organic cotton stuffed animals and wooden blocks, for example.

—Can you safely buy the product used? Dollhouses and building sets frequently stand the test of time.

—Shop locally: Craft fairs can offer up some wonderful, hand-made toys and the chance to speak with the craftsperson about the materials used.

—Antique toys or imported toys might contain lead in the paint. You can test for lead in toys by purchasing a Lead Check Swabs kit — from Lowe’s, Home Depot or at your local hardware store.  However, be aware that none of the at-home testing kits is considered100 percent reliable.

—Give your business to companies that have pledged responsibility, such as Plan Toys, Haba, Brio, Chicco, Discovery Toys and Lego.

—Create a costume box filled with clothes gathered from closets or Goodwill. Just be sure not to include costume jewelry containing lead.

—To keep on top of the latest recalls, visit: www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/

LESLIE GARRETT is a mother of three and author of ‘The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and one our kid will thank us for!’). Visit her at www.virtuousconsumer.com.


Read more about the toy recalls:

                                                Not Led by the Lead