by Dr. Philip Landrigan
Every child loves receiving toys as gifts, and parents everywhere look forward with anticipation to seeing the looks of wonder and surprise on their children's faces when they unwrap a package and find a new and beautiful toy.
But even as we prepare to give toys to our children and our grandchildren, it is important to remember that some toys are not safe. Unsafe toys should be avoided.
Vinyl plastic toys. Virtually all vinyl plastic toys contain a class of chemicals called phthalates. Phthalates are chemicals that are added to vinyl plastic to make it soft and flexible. Prominent members of the phthalate family are known by their initials-DEHP and DINP. Highly credible tests conducted by the U.S. National Toxicology Program have shown that phthalates can cause cancer in animals and can also cause kidney and liver damage. In view of these findings it is prudent medical practice to treat phthalates as though they can cause cancer in children.
The danger to children from these chemicals arises when children, especially small children, chew on soft toys or pacifiers containing phthalates. In the process they inadvertently dissolve some of the phthalates from the plastic into their mouths, swallow the material, and then absorb it into their blood stream. Once in the blood stream of a child, these compounds reach the liver, the kidneys, the brain and other organs and cause damage.
To prevent your child from coming into contact with phthalates in toys, my advice is that you avoid any and all toys that are made of vinyl plastic unless the toy contains a label which explicitly states that the toy is free of phthalates.
Lead and Cadmium. Lead and cadmium are two toxic metals that are present in certain plastic toys and that also are painted onto the surface of other toys.
Lead is easily absorbed from a toy by a small child who may mouth the toy. Once in a child's body, lead goes directly to the brain where it can cause brain damage with loss of intelligence, shortening of attention span and behavioral problems. Cadmium is also absorbed by children who mouth toys and swallow cadmium pigment that may be on the surface. Cadmium is highly toxic to the kidneys.
My advice as a pediatrician is that you specifically inquire as to whether any plastic toy you may be thinking of purchasing contains lead or cadmium either on the surface or in the plastic itself. If the storekeeper does not know, you would be wise to assume that the toy contains cadmium or lead and go elsewhere.
Aside from chemicals that are found to be hazardous in children's toys, there are other risks associated with toys.
Choking buttons. Some stuffed animals contain tiny plastic eyes that can be chewed off by a child, stick in the child's throat and cause asphyxiation. Always look at eyes or any other buttons on a toy and make sure that they are big enough so that they cannot possibly asphyxiate a child.
Sharp points. Some toys contain sharp points. Especially notorious are spears and bows and arrows. Horrible accidents have resulted to children from inadvertently being shot or stabbed with these implements. My advice as a pediatrician is that you avoid all toys with sharp points.
Play sand containing asbestos. While some sand for sandboxes is taken from the beach and is perfectly harmless, other sand comes from quarries and consists of crushed quarry rock. Unfortunately, some of this rock comes from quarries that contain asbestos, and the crushing of the rock liberates the asbestos. For years, manufacturers of toy sand have successfully lobbied the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the agency that is supposed to be watching out for children's health. They have persuaded the CPSC not to require labeling of sand to indicate its source. As a result, consumers are unable to tell by looking at the sand whether or not it contains asbestos. My advice is that you not purchase sand for a sandbox unless the manufacturer can assure you that it consists of beach sand and that it is not quarry rock.
As parents we have to be sure that the toys we purchase for our children are safe. Remember you, as a purchaser, have all the power. You have the power to ask questions. You have the power to refuse to buy any toy that a manufacturer or storekeeper cannot assure you is safe. Use your power.
Philip J. Landrigan is the Ethel H. Wise Professor, Chair of Community Preventive Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He is responsible for directing research programs, training residents and fellows, and teaching medical students. Dr. Landrigan also holds a Professorship in Pediatrics at Mount Sinai and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Children's Health Environmental Coalition.
Reprinted with permission from Children's Health Environmental Coalition
Date written: 1999
Date reviewed: 1999