Introduction

The holiday season brings joy—and toys—to children around the globe.

However, most people are not aware that some supposedly harmless toys could be putting the lives and health of their children at risk.

The issue concerning toy safety is not recent and does not seem to be close to an end. Between 2008 and 2010 in the European Union, approximately 139,000 children annually required emergency medical treatment due to injuries related to playground equipment. Additionally, approximately 57,000 child injuries were related to toys and 35,000 other cases were related to infant or child products.[1]  

The United States has also seen injury and death due to unsafe toys. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) determined that between 2014 and 2016, there were 35 toy-related deaths among children under 15 years old.  An estimate of 240,000 toy-related injuries were treated in U.S. hospitals’ emergency departments in 2016.[2]

Current European Legislation on Toy Safety

In order to combat these statistics and ensure toy safety in Europe, the European Union (EU) adopted the Toy Safety Directive 2009/48/EC.[3] The Directive aims to provide rules on the safety of toys and their free movement around the EU’s 28 Member States. The Directive applies to products designed or intended for use in play by children under 14 years old. As a directive, it must be implemented by way of the national law of each member state.

Before a toy is placed on the market, manufacturers must make sure that an analysis has been carried out of the chemical, physical, mechanical, electrical, flammability, hygiene and radioactivity hazards that the toy may present. The Directive also requires an assessment of the potential exposure to such hazards.[4]

Member states are responsible for guaranteeing that all necessary measures are taken in order to make sure that toys placed on the market comply with the essential safety requirements.[5] Before the toy is placed on the market, its properties concerning the particular safety requirements must be analyzed:[6]

  • Physical and mechanical properties: toys must be designed and manufactured in such a way as not to present any risk–or only the minimum risk inherent to their use
  • Flammability: toys must not present a dangerous flammable element in children’s environment
  • Chemical properties: toys must be designed and manufactured in a way that there are no risks of adverse effects on human health due to exposure to the chemical substances or mixtures of which the toys are composed or which they contain
  • Electrical properties: parts of toys which are connected to a source of electricity capable of causing electric shock must be properly insulated and mechanically protected to prevent the risk of shock, providing protection against electrical hazards arising from an electrical power source
  • Hygiene: toys must be designed and manufactured meeting hygiene and cleanliness requirements in order to avoid any risk of infection, sickness or contamination
  • Radioactivity: toys shall comply with all relevant measures adopted under Chapter III of the Treaty establishing the European Atomic Community

One requirement that stands out involves the chemical properties of a toy. The Directive specifies that toys must not present risks of adverse effects to human health as a result of the exposure to chemical substances. It implements stricter requirements compared with the previous Directive on Toy Safety, which only established general concentration limits for eight chemical substances.[7]

...some supposedly harmless toys could be putting the lives and health of their children at risk.

The Directive specifies 55 allergenic fragrances that are banned from toys.[8] It is followed by a list of 11 other substances, which may be used in toys or their components if they are indicated on the label, packaging or in an accompanying leaflet.

For olfactory board games, cosmetic kits and gustative (a.k.a. “tasting”) games, 15 of the 55 banned substances[9], along with the additional 11, can be allowed if they are clearly labeled and comply with the requirements of Directive 76/768/EEC and the relevant legislation on food.

‘Heavy elements’ like mercury, cadmium, boron and lead are also restricted in toy parts accessible to children according to the concentration limits established in the Toy Safety Directive.

A Focus on Boron and Lead

If we take a closer look at boron and lead specifically, the Directive[10] provides three different concentration limits for these substances (based on mg/kg). The first limitation is related to the presence of chemicals in “dry, brittle, powder-like or pliable toy material,” followed by “liquid or sticky material” and “scraped-off toy material.

The respective limits for boron and lead in such toys are as follows:

Element

Dry, brittle, powder-like or pliable toy material

Liquid or sticky material (mg/kg)

Scraped-off toy material (mg/kg)

Boron

1200

300

15000

Lead

13,5

3,4

160

 

Bearing in mind these limits, it is worth reflecting on the issue of child exposure to these substances.

The discussion about lead is not recent. The negative impacts of lead on health are well known by the industry; there are many initiatives to reduce the use of this chemical. The UN Environment highlights that children, mostly in developing countries, remain highly exposed to lead paint—partially from toys.[11]

The World Health Organization (WHO) stresses that young children are extremely vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer severe health impacts. Contact with high levels of lead can result in damage to the brain and central nervous system, resulting in comas, convulsions and even death. Even incidents related to lower levels of exposure can cause injury across multiple body systems. Among the effects are behavioral changes, reduced educational attainment, anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs.[12]

WHO emphasizes that there is no known safe blood lead concentration; as exposure intensifies, the range and severity of symptoms and effects are also intensified. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns to remove the toy immediately if a child is exposed to a toy containing lead.[13]

WHO highlights that the presence of lead in toys is one of the most common sources of lead exposure for children. Toys can be painted with lead paint or even the toy itself can be made of lead.[14]

One relevant incident of lead paint in toys happened in 2007, when a leading toy manufacturer recalled approximately 967,000 toys due to their surface paint containing excessive levels of lead. The toys were manufactured in China between April and July of 2007.[15] It led to the payment of USD $2.3 million in civil penalties due to the violation of the federal lead paint ban in the United States.[16]    

Boron is another concern related to the presence of chemicals in toys. Boron and its combinations have a variety of uses in industry and consumer products. Excessive levels of boron can cause irritation, diarrhea, vomiting and cramps in the short term; in the worst cases can be a cause of infertility and harm to unborn children in pregnant women.[17] The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found out that the lethal dose of boron for children is between five and six grams.[18]

...while the current Toy Safety Directive applies to new products, there is no retroactive regulation on the recycling or resale of older toys.

In recent research performed by Which?, a UK-based consumer affairs magazine, several toy “slimes” and “putties” on the market for the holidays were tested in the UK.[19] The research found that 40 percent of these articles failed the EU safety standard for toys. This was also not the first time that such toy slimes and putties were tested.

The first test carried out by Which? was in July 2018.[20] Those initial tests disclosed that some slimes had levels of boron four times higher than the safety limits established by EU. The research highlighted the fact that one of the compounds of boron, borax, is largely used in slime to achieve its texture.

Another point of concern is related to the lack of information in the labels of slimes, especially about ingredients. The Which? research emphasizes that some slimes were certified with a CE mark;[21] however, the levels of boron in those toys were very high. The same tests were carried out in Italy and a third of the slimes tested had levels of boron above that which was permitted.

The United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund (US Pirg Education Fund), in its 33rd annual survey on toy safety, reported that substantial concentrations of boron were found in slime toys. The concentrations were around 4,700 parts per million, which is over 15 times more than the limit established by the European Directive.[22] However, the US has yet to establish official limits for the presence of boron in consumer products.

Another problem is secondhand toys. The plastic used to manufacture secondhand toys did not necessarily follow the same standards applied nowadays and could, therefore, be a source of chemical exposure.

Recent research carried out in the UK by Andrew Turner analyzed approximately 200 secondhand plastic toys sourced in the UK using x-ray fluorescence spectrometry to identify nine hazardous elements including antimony, barium, bromine, cadmium, chromium, lead and selenium.[23] Each element was detected in more than 20 toys or in their components in high concentrations, presenting a serious concern for child exposure.

Turner highlights that “while the current Toy Safety Directive applies to new products, there is no retroactive regulation on the recycling or resale of older toys.” Parents should be aware that old, ‘mouthable,’ plastic items could be a source of hazardous element and expose their children to extremely toxic elements, as the presence of chemicals substances is higher than the limits established by the Toy Safety Directive.[24]  

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the problem of toxic toys is yet to be solved. As consumers, and parents, it is important to be aware of these harms and support initiatives, such as the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, that aim to eliminate the exposure to these hazardous. Toys are an important part of a child’s development, but they must be safe to have a positive impact.

 

 

[1] EuroSafe. Injuries in the European Union – Summary of injury statistics for the years 2008-2010, p. 13. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/data_collection/docs/idb_report_2013_en.pdf Access 02 January 2019

[2] CPSC. Toy-Related Deaths and Injuries – Calendar Year 2016, p. 5-8. Available at: https://cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/Toy_Report_2016.pdf?6ZwpKyiwsEdVzWXhH0m0doo5cJALIZFW Access 02 January 2019

[3] Directive 2009/48/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 June 2009 on the safety of toys.

[4] Directive 2009/48/EC, Art. 18

[5] Directive 2009/48/EC, Art. 10(1)

[6] Directive 2009/48/EC, Annex II, Particular safety requirements

[7] The replaced Council Directive 88/378/EEC of 3 May 1988 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States concerning the safety of toys, only established concentration limits for antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium, while the current Directive enumerates several chemical hazards, along 3 tables, including 55 chemical elements that are banned from toys.  

[8] The banned substances can be allowed if there is a proof that the presence of the substance is technically unavoidable and does not exceed 100 mg/kg.

[9] Substances 41 to 55 of the table under paragraph 11, Section III, Annex II, Directive 2009/48/EC.

[10] Directive 2009/48/EC, Annex II, Section III, 13

[11] Relevant to point out that, according to the UN Environment, only 69 countries adopted lead paint laws. UN Environment, Lead exposure is poisoning the future of our children. Available at: https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/lead-exposure-poisoning-future-our-children Access 28 December 2018

[12] WHO. Lead poisoning and health, 23 August 2018. Available at https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/lead-poisoning-and-health Access 26 December 2018

[13] CDC. Lead hazards in some holiday toys and toy jewelry. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/features/leadintoys/ Access 26 December 2018

[14] WHO. Childhood lead poisoning, p. 46. Available at https://www.who.int/ceh/publications/leadguidance.pdf Access 27 December 2018

[15] CPSC. Fisher-Price Recalls Licensed Character Toys Due To Lead Poisoning Hazard, 02 August 2007. Available at https://www.cpsc.gov/Recalls/2007/Fisher-Price-Recalls-Licensed-Character-Toys-Due-To-Lead-Poisoning-Hazard-/ Access 31 December 2018

[16] CPSC. Mattel, Fisher-Price to Pay $2.3 Million Civil Penalty for Violating Federal Lead Paint Ban, Penalty is highest ever for CPSC regulated product violations, 05 June 2009. Available at https://www.cpsc.gov/content/mattel-fisher-price-to-pay-23-million-civil-penalty-for-violating-federal-lead-paint-ban Access 31 December 2018

[17] Fox, H. Children’s toy slime on sale with up to four times EU safety limit of potentially unsafe chemical, 17 July 2018. Available at : https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/07/childrens-toy-slime-on-sale-with-up-to-four-times-eu-safety-limit-of-potentially-unsafe-chemical/ Access 26 December 2018

[18] Toussaint, T; Garber, A. Trouble in Toyland – The 33rd Annual Survey of Toy Safety, USPirg Education Fund, November 2018, p. 8. Available at https://uspirg.org/sites/pirg/files/toy-report/USP-Toyland-Report-18.pdf Access 26 December 2018

[19] Hannah Fox, Hamley’s, Smyths and Argos sell slimes containing chemicals up to four times higher than EU safety limit, 13 December 2018. Available at: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/12/hamleys-smyths-and-argos-sell-slimes-containing-chemicals-up-to-four-times-higher-than-eu-safety-limit/ Access 26 December 2018

[20] Fox, H. Children’s toy slime on sale with up to four times EU safety limit of potentially unsafe chemical, 17 July 2018. Available at : https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/07/childrens-toy-slime-on-sale-with-up-to-four-times-eu-safety-limit-of-potentially-unsafe-chemical/ Access 26 December 2018

[21] As described in Art. 3(16) of the Directive 2009/48/EC a CE marking is a “marking by which the manufacturer indicates that the toy is in conformity with the applicable requirements set out in Community harmonisation legislation providing for its affixing”.

[22]Toussaint, T; Garber, A. Trouble in Toyland – The 33rd Annual Survey of Toy Safety, USPirg Education Fund, November 2018, p. 1. Available at https://uspirg.org/sites/pirg/files/toy-report/USP-Toyland-Report-18.pdf Access 26 December 2018  

[23] Turner, A. Concentration and migratabilities of hazardous elements in second-hand children’s plastic toys. Environmental Science & Technology, 2018. Available at https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.est.7b04685 Access 03 January 2019.

[24] Turner, A. Concentration and migratabilities of hazardous elements in second-hand children’s plastic toys. Environmental Science & Technology, 2018, p. 3111. Available at https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.est.7b04685 Access 03 January 2019.