Toys can leak dangerous chemicals that are especially harmful to children. Sound crazy? We think so too. But it is happening, here in Europe. Worse still, it is hard to know which are contaminated, so they are hard to avoid. What we really need are stronger laws and for that, you can help.
How bad is the situation?
Hard-working government inspectors are trying to stop a flood of dangerously contaminated toys; many plastic, most from China. They have been meticulously testing all kinds of products, then alerting each other in this searchable database. Ideally all products would be tested. In reality, there are too many, budgets are too tight and the issue is not a priority. So dangerous toys are likely getting through undetected. Then there are the chemicals that are also harmful, but legal up to certain limits, such as gender-bending phthalates, mainly used in plastic.
What are the effects?
All children tested in one large-scale project were found to be contaminated with phthalates at levels that were a risk to health in 13 out of 15 countries. Kids were on average twice as contaminated as their mothers, and sometimes much more contaminated, up to 12 times more. Phthalates can cause reproductive disorders, delayed puberty and numerous behavioural disorders, among other impacts. The European Chemicals Agency concluded that action was needed. Yet so far, hundreds of types of phthalate can be used in toys without restrictions. They are just one among tens of thousands of poorly understood and poorly controlled chemicals in use in Europe today.
How can you buy safe toys?
Some volatile chemicals give off an odd smell when you open a packet. Others do not. The truth is, it is hard if not impossible to avoid harmful substances. However, consumer groups yesterday released a summary of all the toxic toys they have uncovered recently. Also, WECF has produced a toys guide with plenty of useful buying tips. And a new app is out this winter to make it easy for you to exercise your legal right to know if any ‘substances of very high concern’ above a certain level are present in any product, including toys. Others are ready now. Both the Danish government and NGOs have produced excellent guidance for pregnant, hopeful women and those breastfeeding.
How do we stop deal with this problem long-term?
The law, in a nutshell. One EU law covers that whole of Europe. That is great, but not if the law is full of loopholes. The EU Toy Safety Directive is, so needs strengthening to ensure all toxic chemicals are kept out of toys. Then there are the laws that allow recyclers to trade in plastic containing banned chemicals. Not good. And the fact that chemical companies can sell stuff that hasn’t gone through safety checks properly. Some turn out to be dangerous, but it takes years or even decades to get them off the market. So whether a chemical is proven toxic or not, toys should list all chemical ingredients on the label, just like for food and cosmetics.
The truth is, even though Europe has some of the best chemical laws in the world, they are badly used and we paying the price in health and environment impacts. Some are calling chemicals ‘the new dieselgate scandal’. That said, the EU is now under new management, so to speak, and we are expecting fresh thinking this winter – a European Green Deal. You can keep ambition high by looking up your MEP and telling them how important that is.
The EEB today launched a public information film to highlight the use of toxic chemicals in toys.
Photo by Jason Leung. The toys in this image and video are unrelated to the text on this page and used for illustrative purposes only.