I lost my toy tossing virginity last week. And I'm not happy about it.
Last year, I talked many parents through their anger, frustration, and anxiety as lead-tainted toy after lead-tainted toy was recalled. I calmly explained the issues regarding BPA and steered freaked out families towards safer bottles (and canned goods) as the stories about this hormone disrupting chemical popped up in just about every publication from parenting magazines to local newspapers.
But throughout all of this advice giving, I remained personally untouched. The extremely well-researched (fine -- over-researched) toys in my own house weren't being recalled. They're the tried and true green things -- not so-called natural toys.
Sure, sometimes I wish my kid could have every shiny plastic doll she develops a "thing" for, but I'm not risking it. Especially not when she's this young. In fact, since my daughter was born, we've never purchased a plastic toy (a few plastic gifts have been grandfathered into an only-in-the-car bin). I don't say this to sound smug. I just honestly practice what I preach. It's a pain in the ass but it makes me feel safe(r).
A site to which I often steer parents in the market for toys -- HealthyToys.org -- releases its latest results today, December 3rd, in time for holiday shopping. And to my shock and horror and disgust, more than a few toys we own apparently contain lead, arsenic, chlorine (which indicates something is PVC when it claims not to be) and other undesirables. Did I mention how sad I am?
HealthyToys is a project of The Ecology Center. They use a handheld X-ray fluorescence (XRF) device manufactured by Innov-X Systems to test for lead, cadmium, chlorine, arsenic, bromine and mercury, as well as chromium, tin, and antimony. The methodology and the results are well described on their site, and the sampled toys are clearly listed by hazard level (low, medium, high). These materials were selected
"because they have been identified by many regulatory agencies as problematic chemicals or they are associated with problematic compounds and because of their toxicity or suspected toxicity, persistence, and/or their tendency to build up in people and the environment. These chemicals have also been linked in animal and sometimes human studies to long-term health impacts such as birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, and cancer. They were also chosen because these chemicals, or their elemental building blocks, have been subject to either regulatory restrictions or voluntary limits set by industry associations or third party environmental certification organizations."
More from the site:
"When children put these products into their mouths, some of these chemicals may enter their bodies. Some of the substances, which are not always chemically bound to the products, may also be released directly onto skin, or into the air that children breathe. There may also be exposure through chemicals that collect in house dust. However, the detection of a chemical in a product does not necessarily mean there is direct exposure."
Well it's hard, when you see a toy you researched and spent good money on listed on the site as a high hazard, to try to rationalize this way.
How the hell am I to know if the PVC HealthyToys found in the Melissa & Doug kitchen dollhouse set my mother recently bought my daughter is a route for direct exposure? Surely the lead and PVC they also found in the Melissa & Doug harmonica she puts in her mouth -- it's made to be put in mouths!! -- constitutes direct exposure, right? It came with a 7 Piece Beginner Band Set. The metal in the Set's jingle sticks also showed high levels of lead.
Both of these things went directly in the trash, along with the dollhouse furniture.
The list of Melissa & Doug items that tested poorly is upsettingly long (high lead in the blackboard of their table top easel, medium lead in many other dollhouse furniture sets, medium hazard PVC levels in a train kids can decorate, and in their First Play Candy Jar Fill and Spill, and other plush toys, including their First Play Soft ABC Blocks, which also has high hazard levels of bromine).
Log on for the other details as HealthyToys.org tested a lot of Melissa & Doug this season -- 173 items to be exact. This is actually the most HealthyToys sampled from any one company, by nearly 70 items. Maybe because M&D's whole thing is that they're parents and what they have a to offer is not only safe (they say they test their stuff often) and affordable (the toys are cheap!)? Both are really important to me as an organic mom. I do not believe you have to spend more money to live green.
[***IMPORTANT UPDATE: Since I wrote this post, and before these HealthyToys results were made public, Melissa & Doug supplied HealthyToys/The Ecology Center with results of their own thorough third party testing, and The Ecology Center took down some of their high hazard rankings. They are currently comparing test results to resolve what the levels in the toys actually are. By all accounts, the Melissa & Doug tests are thorough and based on regulatory structure. Which might be part of the problem -- The Ecology Center (and this mom) thinks current regulatory levels aren't always strict enough. I plan to update again as soon as they've resolved their discussion. Here's hoping I did toss some perfectly good toys. We're all on the same side here.]
Toys from other companies I like also tested poorly. There were medium levels of chlorine in bath toys from Haba, plus high hazard arsenic levels in the red rattle in their first blocks set (which we own - bye bye red rattle!). Particularly upsetting in the Haba samples tested was medium hazard levels of bromine, arsenic, tin and antimony in some of their rattles and clutching toys -- the very things designed for the smallest people.
And they detected the following in Alex toys: high levels of mercury in twist up crayons as well as colored chalk, plus high arsenic in you-paint ceramic beads. What the hell are these chemicals doing in there? I'm so intensely disturbed. Oh, and the plastic dolls from Corolle that are widely reported in green mothering circles (mainly online) to be PVC free? HealthyToys found PVC in all that they tested, enough to list them as medium concerns. Argh!
Before going postal, I called Jeff Gearhart from the Ecology Center. He thinks it's important to look at the big picture here, especially as toys are made batch by batch. The actual harmonica we own might not be one of the ones they tested, and so might actually be safe. No way of knowing. So looking at a company's overall performance is one way to attempt to shop safely in this murky realm.
If you look at the numbers by manufacturer, 74 percent of the Haba (Habermass) toys tested and 70 percent of Melissa and Doug tested low hazard while only 25 percent of Mattel toys tested similarly. Hasbro was similarly problematic, with only 44 percent low hazard. Mattel is the largest company here, and is among the worst. Hasbro is the second largest and fares significantly better.
"One message is we do find things get through the cracks, but some brands are testing consistently better," says Gearhart.
Even mainstream brands like Gund tested well - 84 percent low hazard for the plush toy giant.
"Legos for instance is a huge brand and everything we have tested has been great, it's plastic that doesn't typically have a lot of additives, not a lot of heavy metals in the pigments," he says, by way of being encouraging.
Plan Toys, an eco-friendly brand, tested really well - 96 percent of the 53 products they tested came back low hazard (the hazardous culprit in one toy was a hat worn by an otherwise safe wooden person). We have some of their toys, and this season it looks like we'll be getting some more. We'll also be buying from very small local companies where I can grill and re-grill the people making the toys until I feel ok about them.
One green mom friend of mine says she's only ever going to buy things - like lovely wool felted balls and dolls -- she commissions on Etsy.com from here on out. But more than that, we'll just do less toys. We're not big on toys anyway. Theatre and museum tickets are inherently nontoxic and environmentally low impact. So are (organic cotton) aprons and I-owe-you baking lessons from yours truly.
Meanwhile, it's crucial to understand that none of us can XRF-test or shop or avoidance-bake our way out of this problem. Toxic toys are a political issue. Parents and other concerned people need to be mobilized and push as hard as we can for real toy regulation. Tired parents can sign internet petitions (it does help). HealthyToys.org is working now to make it easier for people in whatever state in the country to contact their reps asking them to get behind the Kids Safe Chemical Act.
Yes we can (play with safe toys). And for once, it appears we have just elected who will listen.
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