Playing with toys is fun! And toys are an integral part of child development, from increasing coordination to fostering imagination and social skills. Traditional toys are designed for children about 14 years of age or less and include a large spectrum of items ranging from mouthing objects for infants, to arts and crafts, to play cosmetics. With such a dizzying diversity of toys, how do parents make certain that the toy is safe for their children?1
Parents need to consider two things: can the chemicals in the toy result in an exposure, and is this exposure associated with a health risk. In toxicology, this is described in the following equation:
Risk = Exposure x Hazard
In other words, it is important to consider not just the chemical levels in the toy, but also whether they can cause an exposure above a safe level. The key things parents can do to minimize exposure to their children is to carefully select the toys they play with and follow the warning, if any, on the label.
In other words, it is important to consider not just the chemicals in the toy, but also whether they can cause an exposure above a safe level.
As children grow through various stages they have different capabilities. For example, mouthing behavior in infants and toddler,2 frequent touching of the face in toddlers, and generally more risky behavior in older children. All of these activities can result in unintended chemical ingestion or contact with the eye from the toy in their hands. Additionally, the same amount of a chemical may be more, or perhaps less, toxic to a child than an adult because of increased or different metabolism and activity of a child.
The good news is that a variety of regulations exist that are designed to improve toy safety.3,4,5 State, national and international agencies create and implement toy safety standards, including identifying chemicals of concern, setting permissible limits of chemicals in toys, setting age requirements for specific toys, and requiring hazard language on toys containing chemicals of concern. It is the responsibility of the toy manufacturer and the distributor to make certain their toys meet regulatory standards. For example, manufacturers and distributors request safety assessments of the chemical components that make up the toy and often send the finished product to be tested. Testing ranges from irritancy and corrosiveness to permissible levels of chemicals in the finished products.
Parents can protect their child from chemicals in toys by choosing appropriate toys designed for their child’s age and paying attention to warnings on the labels. The most important thing a parent can do is to assure that very young children do not have access to toys that are not intended for their age. Children under about 3 years of age often mouth toys and other objects. Mouthing presents a high opportunity for exposure to chemicals, as well as accidental swallowing. For example, some toy jewelry contains levels of lead and cadmium. While these toys may be safe if they are only touched (lead and cadmium don’t easily penetrate human skin), they may not be safe if mouthed, since lead and cadmium dissolve in saliva and then get swallowed. In the worst case, a toddler could swallow a small piece of jewelry, which would present both a physical and chemical hazard. As children get older, most will mouth less.2
So, it is most important for a parent to READ THE LABEL. A quality toy company that is in compliance with international regulations will carefully develop warnings for the label intended to provide parents with information to minimize risk. The most important information is usually the recommended age range. This recommendation is based on knowledge of typical behaviors of children of different ages. If your own child tends to mouth or swallow objects more than most kids their age, keep an eye out for warnings like “Harmful if swallowed.” Often if toys leave a residue on hands (e.g., a sculpting dough), a warning like “Washing hands after use” will be included. In this case, the material may not be very hazardous but could cause some irritation if left on the skin for too long. Washing the child’s hands after use may prevent any irritation.
Parents are not alone in their crusade to protect children from chemical risks in toys. State, national and international agencies take great care to define chemicals of concern and minimize exposure to children from toys through regulations. While the system isn’t perfect, manufacturers and distributors hire trained experts to evaluate the safety of the chemicals in the toy materials and perform testing of the finished product to ensure compliance with permissible limits and health claims. Furthermore, increasing scrutiny on toy products improves regulations. While parents have to rely on toy companies to provide products with low risks, they have an important responsibility to carefully read and review warnings on toy labels and act accordingly.6
Rick Reiss, Sc.D. is a Principal Scientist, Exponent, Inc.
Wendy Hillwalker, Ph.D. is a Senior Scientist, Exponent, Inc.
1. This article will focus on chemicals in toys and what it means for your child’s health, and discuss some ways that parents can minimize the risk to their children (hint: read the label!)
2. U.S.EPA’s Child-Specific Exposure Factors Handbook, 2008. http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=199243
3. European Standard 71-9:2005, safety of toys, Part 3: organic chemical compounds.http://standards.nsf.org/apps/group_public/download.php/11248/EN71-9.pdf
5. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is charged with the responsibility of protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury associated with the use of consumer products under the agency’s jurisdiction. The CPSC works to ensure the safety of a range of consumer products including everything from toys to household chemicals. For example, the CPSC has been at the forefront of efforts to insure that children’s toys are not painted with lead based paint. As a result of CPSC’s work, federal limits for lead in paint on children’s toys was reduced to 90 parts per million, which is among the lowest in the world. For further information on the CPSC you can go to their website. http://www.cpsc.gov/about/about.html.
6. For example, a recent white paper on Trouble in Toyland has appropriately call out potential problems associated the physical risks of toys. However, the chemical hazards mentioned in this article are only potential risks. This is because the mere presence of chemicals in a toy, or other products for that matter, are not risks unless the chemicals are in a form that are transferable to your child and at levels that are not safe [see “Is it safe?”, or Hazard v. Risk video of the month]. Determining whether chemicals can be transferred at levels that are not safe is what leads to regulations noted in this essay.