As we are approaching the most important holiday of the year (at least from a little kid’s standpoint), one might wonder if all those bright colorful toys that are routinely bought for babies and toddlers are safe. I mean, OF COURSE, they are safe! The government makes sure of it, right? Right?
While 65% of people believe that toys that contain toxic or potentially toxic chemicals wouldn’t be allowed on the shelves of baby stores, the reality is more grim. In fact, our government has long since subscribed to the philosophy of “safe unless proven otherwise”. That is where we, as parents, are forced to do the due diligence before buying a cute toy.
It is true that we cannot protect our babies from every danger, no matter how hard we try – we can’t live in a bubble. But we CAN take certain steps to educate ourselves about, let’s say, toy safety, especially considering that aside from food (more on food safety in another post), this is the one thing that gets put in their mouths constantly in the first few years of life. I also won’t be talking about “fringe dangers”, like plastics that are yet to be found dangerous (all those millions of new chemicals, plastics and materials that get made and discovered in labs all the over the world have not been proven dangerous and thus are by default “safe” as far as our government is concerned). So even so called safe plastics are not necessarily safe. Wood is, of course, the best, but wood can have hidden dangers, as well as natural rubber.
What makes it even more dangerous is our current standards for levels of toxic substances in children’s toys are based on a 180 pound adult male. As you can imagine that makes a huge difference when the same amount of toxins is ingested by a 20 pound infant whose body and brain are developing and don’t have the same capability of processing toxins.
The issue also comes in when these toxins “interact” in our body and create different reactions all together than they would if they were simply ingested alone.
I would like to list all the common dangers, as well as the materials that are considered somewhat safe, ways to find out what is in your toys, hidden dangers of “safe” materials to watch out for, and finally a list of companies that are committed to making toy safety a priority and have been found to be more consciences and safer than others. What I will NOT cover is the physical danger of toys, like making sure they are age appropriate, can’t be choked on, as well as can’t cause bodily harm. Those are more common sense things.
Probably the number 1 worst and most common toxin out there. Lead is a heavy metal that is classified as a neurotoxin. A neurotoxin impacts brain development, causing learning and developmental problems including decreased IQ scores, shorter attention spans, and delayed learning. It has not been found safe at ANY level according to one study ( Lanphear 2005, Gilbert 2006)- “even the smallest amount affects a child’s ability to learn”. In fact there is “a steeper drop in intellectual ability when a child’s level of exposure goes from 5 to 10ug than when it foes from 10 to 20ug”. Yet the CDC considers a blood level of 10ug acceptable and current toy standards allow up 90 ppm (as far as I know). “In the United states, 1 million children currently exceed the current 10mcg/dl recommended limit”. According to 2006 Gilbert study, when children are exposed to lead, the developmental and nervous system consequences are irreversible. Lead can be inhaled or ingested and it very well transfers from hands to mouth, so handling lead items and then touching your baby’s hands will produce the same effect as that baby chewing on lead.
How common is lead?
It is absolutely scary how much lead there is around us. What makes it worse is that a child’s stomach absorbs 50% of whatever lead they ingest (compared to 11% in adults). Lead is used as a stabilizer in PVC products, in paints, rubber, plastics and ceramics. It is tracked into our house from the outside (another reason to take shoes off in the house, especially with a crawler), it settles on dust on vinyl blinds and in corners, it can be found on children’s clothing (charms on shoes and zippers), and one of the most dangerous is our house/car keys. Keys are often made with lead and who hasn’t heard of the old trick of jingling keys to calm a child down? So every time you give your kid your keys to play with, you risk them ingesting lead (not all keys are made of lead, but one still shouldn’t let their kids play with keys. Instead get a small silicone toy to carry in your purse in case of an “emergency”.) This is something I wouldn’t have even thought about, had I not read it in “Superbaby”prior to Lexi’s birth. Now whenever I see a friend or an acquaintance of mine give their keys to their baby to play, I cringe inside but I do not think it is my place to tell them what to do (unless they are a very close friend of mine in which case I tell them about lead in keys). But I am glad I can spread the info here for those who care to read.
What you can do:
- Make sure to check any toy or baby product you buy on HealthyStuff.org database. They don’t have all the toys on the market, but it’s the best we’ve got for now.
- Some toy manufacturers specifically state that their toys meet EU standards, which tends to be much higher than US standards so it’s a good thing to go by.
- Watch out for any items that are not intended for baby use that your baby can touch or put in their mouths. There was a recent case of a little girl dying from lead exposure after she swallowed a charm off her shoe.
- Paints often contain lead, so if your house was built prior to 1978, it could have been very well painted with lead paint.
- Do not give your kids any metal household items to play that are not intended for them.
- Buy a lead testing kit to test suspected items.
- Mop floors and clean window sills and dusty areas often.
- Wash your children’s hands regularly.
- Remove shoes to avoid tracking lead from the outside.
- Get a carbon water purifier (read about ours) or a Brita filter to filter lead (and other contaminants in water) – according to EPA, 40-60% of non breastfed infants’ lead exposure is from drinking water used in baby formulas in the first 6 months of life. In general exposure from drinking water accounts for 10-20 % of lead exposure.
- Avoid toys made prior to recent changes in lead requirements in 2011, where the lead level could be as high as 300ppm and more in the years prior to that. If buying second hand, find out the year the toy was bought and look up recalls and requirements.
In addition to that, these common items may contain lead: old vinyl miniblinds, calcium supplements, brightly colored pottery that uses lead glazes, keys, dirt from soil tracked indoors.
Another extremely common hazard, found literally everywhere from pacifiers, to bottles, to bath products, flooring, food packaging, and many many other random things.
Center for Health, Environment and Justice called PVC “one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created”. PVC is also commonly referred to as vinyl. It is made from flammable gas vinyl chloride ( a carcinogen) and can easily be inhaled as it off-gases. PVC is often used in baby products (try finding a bath toy or product without PVC). It’s often combined with other dangerous materials such as lead, cadmium, and phthalates (when they need to make it soft and flexible). Cadmium has been linked to brain damage, phthalates are known hormone distrupters (see below). Beach balls, blow up products, shower curtains or any items that have that shiny plasticky or sort of stretchy feel and a “new smell” are most likely made out of PVC. If exposed to any heat, PVC leaches toxins into its environment. According to Center for Health, Enviroment and Justice, “chemicals released during PVC’s life cycle have been linked to chronic diseases in children, impaired child development and birth defects, cancer, disruption of the endocrine system, reproductive impairment and immune system suppression”.
What you can do:
- Make sure to buy products labeled PVC-free, especially if they will be used by your baby.
- Any non-baby items that are suspected to be made of PVC should be left out to off-gased or not used at all.
- Learn to recognize PVC/vinyl by its shiny look and contact the manufacturer or look at the label to verify. You’re looking for words “vinyl or PVC”.
- Rain shields, rain coats, beach toys, bath toys and products are often made of PVC. Many common household items are also made of PVC, so take care to only have your baby play with safe toys.
- Check with healthystuff.org While they do not test for PVC specifically, they do test for chlorine, high levels of which usually mean that the product contains PVC.
As hormone distrupters, they interfere with normal growth and reproductive development in children and have been banned in Europe since 1999 (yes, we are quite behind here). However, despite their big dangers phthalates are used so pervasively that they can be found even in subsurface snow in Antarctica and in jellyfish that live over 300 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Women who had the highest level of phthalates during pregnancy gave birth to sons with smaller penises and scrotum, incomplete descent of the testicles. While our government finally did put a limit on the amount of phthalates allowed in toys, there are a million of items that still contain phthalates. Some of them are: bibs, changing pads (they are not considered a children’s article), skin and body care products ( a lot of shampoos, conditioners, lotions contain phthalates). Most PVC products contain phthalates, so stay clear of those.
What you can do:
- Look for phthalate-free and PVC-free products.
- Personal cosmetics and care products will state that it is a phthalate free product
- Stay away from PVC
Is a toxic chemical, another hormone disrupter that mimics estrogen that leaches from plastic dishware and from toys ( especially when heated) that is linked to a variety of problems including heart diseases, liver abnormalities, diabetes, brain function problems, mood disorders, behavioral disorders, and even early puberty and fertility issues. In fact just low exposure to BPA has been linked to breast cancer and hormone problems. BPA was initially used as a growth hormone for cattle and a estrogen replacement for women, so it comes as a surprise to hear most government agencies to take a stance of BPA being “safe” for human exposure. While that might or might not be true, noone knows exactly what BPA can do to children whose reproductive systems are still developing, considering what a strong hormone mimicking factors it has (hormones co-ordinate almost everything in our bodies in the period of development so their proper expression is crucial to our health)
Infants do not develop the necessary enzyme to metabolize BPA until 3 months of age. Up until recently, by three months of age most infants who were bottle fed or given a teether were exposed to BPA in bottles, teethers and EVEN formula. In 2008 95% of baby bottles contained BPA. I believe some formula companies still line their cans with BPA, so if you’re formula feeding, try to find the one that is in BPA free cans or use powder since BPA is less likely to migrate into a solid dry substance.
What you can do:
- Buy food in glass jars
- Stay away from canned food or buy cans labeled BPA-free (I will try to write a post about companies that do use bpa free cans)
- Stay away from plastic or make sure it is BPA- free (and BPS free)
- Do not heat baby bottles or microwave plastic containers,
- Avoid cling wrap or take care not to have it touch your food (use wax paper to cover food and then cling wrap it).
- BPA is a great example what we, as consumer, can do and dictate. Because of the outrage that followed the discovery that BPA might be toxic and that baby bottles leach this chemical, almost every single company quickly adapted to the market by making BPA free bottles. Currently, it’s much harder to find a baby bottle that has BPA in it.
PU foam is essentially solid petroleum and often contains formaldehyde which is a known carcinogen. The issue becomes when this foam is used in countless baby products like mattresses, nursing pillows, pads, seats and as stuffing for toys. A mixture of chemicals that usually evaporates from the foam products is capable of causing arrhythmias, headache, couching, asthma, blurred vision and a host of other problems.
A problem also arises from the fact that since polyurethane foam is HIGHLY flamable, it is required to be sprayed with extremely toxic fire retardants ( see below).
What you can do:
look at labels. If it says PU foam, or polyurethane foam, make sure it also doesn’t have the CA TB 117 label which indicates fire retardants use. If you have to purchase a PU foam product, make sure it’s not something that your baby will be sleeping on or lying on for extended periods of time. Stuffed toys often have a PU foam stuffing, so attempt to find those that are stuffed with polyester fiber instead. During our trip to Disney, I literally had to hunt for a stuffed animal that didn’t have polyurethane foam inside.
Out of the the toxic materials I have listed in this post, this is probably the least dangerous as long as it is not sprayed with fire-retardants.
Also known as PBDEs or Bromine are highly toxic chemicals sprayed onto almost EVERYTHING baby related and not, from pjs to car seats, strollers, breastfeeding pillows,TVs, electronics, mattresses, beds and even toys. We are exposed to them EVERYWHERE. Just like phthalates they persist everywhere in the atmosphere, but unlike phthalates they are also biocummulative which means they are stored in fatty tissues, breastmilk and blood of animals and humans, with humans getting the worst end of the bargain because we eat animal products (dairy, meat) that transfer all those PBDEs straight into our fatty tissues.
That is one of the reasons why it is important for our government to ban such a wide use of PBDEs, because as a pregnant or breastfeeding woman, you transfer all those toxins that have accumulated in your tissues and blood over the years to your precious baby through placenta and breastmilk 🙁 Earlier fire retardants were discovered to be highly toxic and banned in US in 1977. Current types have been banned in Europe since 2008 but are widely used in the US.
Unfortunately, the guidelines put in place to make sure most of the household items are fire-retardant have been ineffective at curbing fires and all they have done is made our homes even more toxic. In fact, fire retardants have been implicated in SIDS in the toxic gas theory where wrapping a mattress in a gas-proof cover has a 100% success in reducing SIDS. Aside from the controversial and currently not accepted but intriguing SIDS theory, fire retardants are known to be hormone disrupters, leading to attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, hearing problems, slow mental development and, possibly, cancer. In rodents it was a cause of problems with brain development with most of the damage done during prenatal life and early life and the effect were irreversible. While these finding were done on animals with levels lower than we, humans, currently have in our bodies ( and yes, we ALL have PBDEs in us), because flame retardants are bioaccumulative, it won’t be long until those levels become of concern.
What you can do:
Certain items will have a label indicating that it was treated with flame retadants. Strollers, car seats, pillows, mattresses should have a label that has “California Standard Technical Bulletin 117, TB 117”. You can either avoid those or make sure you wash them thoroughly ( though I am not confident they wash out).
Why are our children exposed to so many harmful chemicals and substances and noone is doing anything?
It’s a good question! There are many organizations that found their passion in trying to get our government to make changes. This IS a passionate topic: the well being of our children and us, as a human race. Certain changes HAVE been put into effect. Government agencies are slooooowly jumping on board. But multi-million corporations and their lobbying powers are strong and powerful. Change costs them money and time. Why come up with something better and healthier if what you have is cheap and does the trick? One of the ways we can get them to change is by doing our part, as a consumer. That is, DEMANDING healthier safer products and not settling for the ones that put our children’s lives in danger. Consumer demand is everything, WE have the power here. If we all stop buying products that are toxic and instead choose more organic or natural items, the companies will get a clue and eventually those fringe “safe” products will become cheaper as supply grows.
It is a pretty safe alternative to plastic, especially for teethers and toys. It is widely used in the medical field and to me it feels a lot more pleasant to touch.
Here are some of the baby items made of silicone:
The best material for toys! However, you have to be careful when wood is painted or glued together, since paint can contain (and often does) lead and glue can be toxic. So only buy wood toys from trusted companies. Do not just assume that any wood toy is safe.
Also a great material for bath toys. But (there’s always a but, isn’t there?) even natural rubber contains naturally occurring nitrosamines so make sure that they toys you’re buying have had them removed.
It’s a very good substitute for PVC and plastics, as well as more toxic foam. It’s stable, soft, it floats and it is generally safe. It’s been recently discovered that EVA foam can contain formamide which is a toxic substance that can be inhaled and off-gases for a period of 28 days or so. If you do buy an item made out of EVA foam, make sure that the company tests it for formamide (most US companies don’t) and/or let it offgas for a month.
ABS has good resistance to impact, heat, and chemicals, a safer alternative to other plastics. That is, until they find something wrong with it as well.
HOW TO MAKE SURE YOUR TOYS ARE SAFE:
- The first step to making your child safe from these chemicals is to educate yourself. There are plenty of books out there that talk about the effects of different chemicals on our environment and our health. A simple Google search will produce somewhat accurate results, as well.
- Once you know what the dangers are you can call or email the customer service of a toy in question or look for a BPA free, PVC free, Phthalate free label. I’ve done it for all our toys and have gotten a reply from every single one of them. There are also a few websites that did the leg work on toy manufacturers and have posted the results. If you trust them, they could be your source.
- And finally the biggest thing that worked for me is avoiding the toy isles of stores and shopping online instead or making lists of potential purchases and then researching. When you are at a store, if you’re impulsive like me, you are much more likely to grab a toy or an item you liked hoping it is safe. Instead, what I do is look for toys online, then Google them to see if anyone trustworthy has already done the reasearch and posted it. If not, I email the customer service of the brand inquiring about the materials used and if it is PVC, BPA, lead, fire retardants and phthalate free. I also check the toy on Healthystuff.org in hopes of finding that exact toy listed there.
I know it sounds complicated, but once you have a list of brands that you trust, you simply always go to them for any toy need. So for that reason, for the next 7 days, once a day I will write a review of a toy company that I like and consider safe (-r), along with some of their best toys, as well as host a giveaway for some of them right in time for Christmas.
Below is the schedule of the Toy Feature:
In addition to these toys, there a few toy brands that aren’t in this feature that I would like to bring to your attention:
SKIP HOP WOODEN TOYS (new line)
MATTEL (owns Fisher Price, Disney toys, Barbie, a few others) (uses PVC, took a long time to commit to removing phthalates, huge lead recalls with over 110,000 ppm (limit is 600ppm))
HASBRO (uses PVC& phthalates and denies there is any danger)
DISNEY (polyurethane foam in stuffed animal, questionable cheap plastic, necklaces with high lead content)