December 15, 2008 at 9:16PM
by Alexandra Zissu
Since my last post about "green" toys getting bad ratings on HealthyToys.org, the project of The Ecology Center, a Michigan based nonprofit, I've been in a funk. It's not enough for me - as a journalist or as a mom -- to just report that organic toys are possibly as unsafe as their conventional counterparts, then wish you (and me) happy holidays and move on. I'm not ok shopping as if playing Russian roulette - Oh I think my kid will like this, hopefully it's in the 70 percent of the toys from such and such company that tested low hazard. No thanks. And I don't like the idea of leaving readers in a similar gray zone.
Warning: this is going to be a long post. Bear with me, the topic is both too confusing and too important not to explore at length. And I don't feel I've cracked it yet.
So I started calling the heads of the "green" toy companies I have purchased items from and talking to them. I've also interviewed many of my organic/green leaning friends and colleagues who are parents about their take on the situation. I spoke with Dr. Philip Landrigan, M.D, Chairman of Mount Sinai's Department of Community and Preventive Medicine and their Children's Environmental Health Center. Based on these conversations, I wrote a piece on the topic for New York Magazine, where I'm the kids editor. Sadly what was printed was short due to space constraints.
The question I'm trying to find an answer to doesn't fit tidily into a short article: other than manufacturing slips, to what do organic toys owe their HealthyToys.org besmirching? From my interviews, I have come up with three main reasons (in no order): they're made of PVC plastic, current regulations aren't as strict as HealthyToys (and others) thinks they should be, and the screening methods they used.
1. PLASTIC: If you're selling a "green" toy that contains PVC (aka vinyl) HealthyToys gives it an automatic medium hazard rating, as vinyl often contains hormone disrupters. But current toy regulations allow PVC (though there are new rules on what chemicals are allowed to be used to make PVC flexible, most dolls currently on shelves don't yet conform to these). This is bad news if you have a kid who loves their rubber ducky or their baby doll. Yes, there are dolls made out of wool, cotton, and other natural fabrics, but the true plastic versions are often what kids (and parents) like. Manufacturers tend to say it's impossible to make a non PVC plastic doll. Which is why when a brand, say Corolle, gains a reputation in eco circles for making a phthalate-free PVC plastic doll, parents concerned about environmental health flock to it. HealthyToys gives Corolle, which is owned by Mattel but operates independently, medium hazard ratings for all dolls because they're PVC. By several accounts, they test their dolls thoroughly and often for non-allowed substances, and HealthyToys didn't find levels of these. And if you email Corolle through their website to ask a question (say, about why the things smell so strongly of vanilla and what chemical that scent is, exactly), Beau James, Managing Director for Corolle North America, will call you back and speak to you at length. Even if you're not a reporter. It's kind of like being able to speak to an actual farmer at a farmers market about what they spray and why vs. going blindly into a supermarket. Even if there are legal reasons James returns emails via phone calls (as he told me), these nuances make an green-leaning holiday shopper feel better about buying a phthalate-free PVC doll for their kid. PVC is, of course, still an environmental issue (its manufacture and disposal are so un-eco and detrimental that environmentalists refer to it as "poison plastic.") And sometimes it - even the phthalate free kind - can contain other questionable chemicals (read this interview with Mike Schade from the Center for Health, Environment and Justice at SafBaby.com.)
But I digress.
2. and 3. REGULATIONS AND METHOD: I gather from my conversations that current regulations require the surface of a toy to be safer than what's contained within, based on the concept that the innards are supposedly inaccessible to children. But HealthyToys tests with an XRF gun, which screens the entire toy, not just the surface, so their results sometimes include findings from inaccessible areas. These guns are also used by companies like Melissa & Doug to scan many items. If something comes up questionable, then they do much more extensive and expensive testing at a lab, the results of which are more accurate than XRF screening. There's no debating the merits or legitimacy of XRF. "It's a well established technology. The machine has a very sensitive measuring device. It measures beneath the surface, not just the surface," says Mt. Sinai's Dr. Landrigan. He finds fault with the notion of accessibility. "That's an argument that the lead industry has used for many years. Kids are clever and persistent. Stuff buried one minute is exposed the next. You can't have lead in proximity to kids." Overall, manufacturers largely considered to be "nontoxic" do appear to be more stringent - especially when it comes to testing -- than conventional ones, but it's the rare breed that goes purer than legally required. "Everything of ours is just as good as it always has been," says Doug Bernstein, dad of six, and co-owner of Melissa & Doug. By all accounts he lab tests much more than average, and even, as I noted in my last post, provided HealthyToys with copies of his results. HealthyToys hasn't (so far) gone back to posting their original XRF figures for the Melissa & Doug items in question, and it bears mentioning that neither Melissa & Doug, nor any of the "green" brands that tested poorly on HealthyToys, has ever had a Consumer Product Safety Commission lead recall.
Since writing about HealthyToys here and for New York, I've been contacted by products liability attorneys (!), manufacturers of safe green toys who want good press, manufacturers of "green" toys who want better press than I've given them, the non profit NSF International about their toy safety program, and countless confused parents. I even heard from GoodGuide, "a start-up with a social mission," about their list of safe toys that combines social and environmental ratings with HealthyToys' health data. It's available for mobile phones for on the go shoppers. None of these emails answered my next important question: Where to go from here?
Based on the interviews I've been doing, I'm not unhappy that I tossed a few toys - including a harmonica -- that XRF screened for chemicals I'd rather not have my daughter around, even if they were maybe buried deep within the items. I took Dr. Landrigan's words to heart - what's the point of letting my kid put something like that, even if it's "inaccessible," in her mouth?
Does this mean I'm taking away her prized (Corolle!) baby doll that I held off buying for a few years (until she was done chewing on toys), researched ad nauseum, and even bought in Europe because E.U. standards are (currently) stricter than U.S.? Nope. I always say over and over again that my green parenting approach is about minimizing exposure to questionable chemicals where possible, where it makes sense. And to follow the precautionary principle. We're so minimized that I'm not concerned about her doll. But we'll absolutely continue our less is more approach to toys. Who needs all of this stuff anyway?
That said, we're not Grinches. Far from it. So we'll shop carefully like many of you this season. Apparently it's a good time to have an innate understanding of manufacturing. Jesse Johnson, co-founder of the green furniture company Q Collection, knows exactly what he'd like to avoid, and also understands that nothing - even organic -- is 100 percent. "We like to have peace of mind knowing the things our son is surrounding himself with and putting in his mouth are made of materials known to be nontoxic." Johnson sees the HealthyToy results as a "double edged sword," but remains confident that brands he owns like Melissa & Doug and Haba are - comparatively speaking -- doing their work. He's right, and HealthyToys agrees. "There are no guarantees but there are some brands that perform better," says the Ecology Center's Jeff Gearhart. "In some ways that's the best we can do. You still have to use some other criteria -- avoid PVC, plastic, and children's jewelry."
One wonderful thing that came out of HealthyToys.org's new results - agree with them or disagree with them - is dialogue. So, lets keep talking about safe toys and talking about safe toys until we have solid regulations in place for safe toys, including regulations for the interiors/cores of said toys, aka sub-strates, and not just the surfaces. And lets push for one go-to symbol to help consumers shop fearlessly and confidently, based on new, strict regulations and testing, like the trustworthy USDA Organic stamp. The Toy Industry Association is working on a certification program, but I don't know enough about it yet to comment.
Everyone should to join this conversation. Are you a manufacturer who feels maligned, who worries the general public doesn't understand the difference between XRF screening and Consumer Product Safety Commission approved lab testing, who feels everyone - including toy store owners - has no idea what the about to go into effect 2009 toy regulations are or what they mean? Air your opinions here, in comments. Hide behind a screenname if need be so your legal department won't get on you for being too honest, but lets talk about what's going on. It's a confusing arena, and all of us need a little guidance. I certainly plan to write more about the new regulations as they happen. I'm already hearing that the very small/local toy companies I've always suggested parents buy from are now saying they'll be put out of business by new testing requirements. How awful. Are you a mom and pop company about to be shut down? Post your story! Did I get something wrong, or forget to point out a crucial issue? Let me know.
Lets keep this dialogue going and we'll get somewhere. The pressure is on, we're all in this together, and it looks like we're only headed in one (purer) direction.