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Toxic Chemicals in Toys and Children’s Products: Limitations of Current Responses and Recommendations for Government and Industry

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Monica Becker & Associates Sustainability Consultants, Rochester, New York
Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Massachusetts
Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Massachusetts
Cite this: Environ. Sci. Technol. 2010, 44, 21, 7986–7991
Publication Date (Web):September 27, 2010
https://doi.org/10.1021/es1009407

Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society. This publication is available under these Terms of Use.

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ANN BLAKE

Synopsis

Hazardous substances in consumer products are a constant worry. Because children have less body mass and are developing rapidly, toxic chemicals in toys are of particular concern. Recent studies have revealed alarming levels of cadmium and lead in products intended for children and compounds in plastics, such as phthalates and bisphenol A, that are suspected of harmful effects. As Europe has introduced REACH and the U.S. is reviewing TSCA, regulators are confronting the issue, but an increasing global market poses problems of jurisdictional reach and supply chain management. In this Feature, Becker et al. review the situation and make recommendations on ways forward.

Introduction

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In June 2007, RC2 Corporation, manufacturer of a popular line of brightly painted wooden trains, recalled more than 1.5 million units after learning that they violated the U.S. government standard for lead (Pb) in paint. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) warned parents that children should stop using the toys immediately (1). This was not an isolated incident; in 2007, over 17 million toys were recalled because they violated the federal Pb paint standard (2). In January 2010, the CPSC recalled 55,000 units of children’s costume jewelry that contained high levels of cadmium (Cd) (3). In June 2010, 12 million promotional drinking glasses sold at McDonald’s were recalled because the painted coating contained Cd (4). Again, consumers were advised to stop using the product immediately.
The 2007 recalls brought attention to the problem of toxic chemicals in toys and other children’s products and the 2010 recalls have been a reminder that this problem is yet to be solved. While violations of existing regulatory standards may have garnered the most press attention, they are merely the tip of the iceberg: for many other toxic chemicals, no regulatory standards are in place.
Since 2007, a variety of activities have been undertaken to address the problem of toxic chemicals in toys and children’s products. Government responses include regulatory measures to increase companies’ accountability, restrictions on the use of certain toxic chemicals, and disclosure requirements. Nonprofit sector efforts are aimed at providing information to consumers, advocacy to support broad legislative reform, and development of an eco-label certification program for toys. The toy industry in the U.S. has focused primarily on developing a conformity assessment system to ensure that toys comply with existing U.S. regulations and standards.
While these initiatives are positive developments, much of the response to the “toxic toys” crisis has been reactive and piecemeal. Taken as a whole, these responses have not been sufficient to ensure that toys and children’s products are safe. This article reviews recent efforts to address toxic chemicals in toys and offers recommendations for further action by government and industry.

Why toxic chemicals in toys are a serious concern

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Toxic exposures in children are a significant concern because of a number of factors, including a higher metabolic rate and greater surface area to weight ratio than adults, immaturity of organ systems, and rapid growth and development of organs and tissues such as bone and brain. Children’s exposure also differs from that of adults because children drink more fluids, eat more food, and breathe more air per kilogram of body weight. Children also have many years ahead to develop diseases with long latency periods (5). Young children’s frequent hand to mouth activity creates a pathway for toxic chemicals in toys and other products to enter the body. Children receive multiple low dose exposures daily from a variety of products with which they come into contact, in addition to chemicals in household dust and the outdoor environment.
Table 1 lists some of the toxic chemicals found in toys and children’s products, describes exposure pathways, and includes the current status of U.S. federal regulations.
Table 1. Examples of Toxic Substances in Toys and Other Children’s Products
Toys and other products intended specifically for children are one category of a much larger set of consumer products that expose infants and children to toxic chemicals, such as personal care products, furniture, and food containers. This article focuses on toys and other children’s products because they are specifically intended for this vulnerable population.

Why are there toxic chemicals in toys?

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There are two major reasons why toys contain toxic chemicals: lack of regulation and violation of existing regulations. This latter problem results in part from the complexity of global production systems.

Regulatory gaps

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists over 80,000 chemicals in its Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) inventory, but few have been adequately tested for safety (10). Under TSCA, extensive hazard and exposure data are needed before EPA can act to restrict the use of chemicals. Historically, even when the link between exposure to a chemical and illness or injury is well documented, EPA has done little to restrict its use (11). It is widely recognized that TSCA is outdated and EPA and advocacy groups are pressing for legislative reform (12). Other federal agencies are also increasingly concerned about toxic chemicals in the environment (13).
In principle, the CPSC has the authority to regulate toxic chemicals in products, but in practice the CPSC’s reach has been limited (14). Under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA), the presence of a toxic substance in a product is not a sufficient condition for labeling or banning the substance. FHSA requires application of a risk-based determination of “substantial personal injury or substantial illness” resulting from exposure (15). Companies are responsible for making this determination, using general guidelines provided by CPSC but are not compelled to generate the relevant exposure and dose−response information that would form the basis for such a determination.
With regard to toys specifically, safety requirements in the U.S. and other industrialized countries have focused primarily on mechanical safety such as preventing choking, laceration, or other injuries. As choking hazards remain a leading cause of toy-related injuries, this is an important area of continued focus (16). Until recently, there has been little focus on chemicals in toys. Under current regulations, the CPSC restricts just fourteen chemicals in toys, including eight heavy metals and six phthalates (17).

Why is cadmium in children’s jewelry?

In early 2010, researchers found high levels of Cd in popular costume jewelry intended for children. The CPSC issued a strong message advising parents to remove the product from children to prevent harm (18). When the news became public, some large retailers reacted quickly and removed these items from their inventories.

Both changes in international markets and regulatory gaps contributed to this situation. Until 2008, 75% of Cd produced in China had been used for manufacturing nickel−cadmium (NiCd) batteries (19). In September 2008, EU legislation restricting the use of Cd in batteries came into force. The Chinese government eliminated tax rebates for Cd batteries, causing financial difficulties for exporters (20). As demand for NiCd batteries dropped, the price of Cd decreased.

With the regulatory spotlight on lead in children’s products, some manufacturers turned to cadmium as a substitute. There are no U.S. federal regulations that that limit the use of this toxic metal in children’s jewelry or require labeling of products containing Cd. The CPSC currently limits cadmium in children’s toys to 75 ppm and is working on new rules to limit the metal’s presence in all children’s products, including jewelry.

Complex global supply chains

Toy production and consumption occur in a global system characterized by large, complex supply chains with constant downward pressure on prices. In many cases, product design and marketing occur primarily in developed countries, with manufacturing outsourced overseas. Demand for low cost products creates pressure for companies to externalize environmental and social costs, resulting in unsafe working conditions, environmental pollution, and a drive toward using the cheapest and often toxic materials.
Even when regulations are in place, a lapse in supply chain management can lead to problems on a large scale. For example, Mattel, the largest toy company in the world, recalled over 2 million toys in 2007 for violation of the U.S. Pb paint standard (21). In its investigation, Mattel discovered that several contractors had purchased leaded paint from suppliers that had not been certified by Mattel (22). Leaded paint, used widely in China for industrial applications, is up to one-third less expensive than nonleaded paint (23).

Responses to toxic chemicals in children’s products

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1 Regulatory responses

Following the well-publicized recalls of 2007, public demand for stronger assurance of toy safety led to the enactment of the 2008 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). The law amended the outdated Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972. The CPSIA significantly increases CPSC funding and enforcement authority. It requires manufacturers to put tracking labels on children’s products including information about the manufacturer, production date, and batch to make it easier to track unsafe products to their sources; makes mandatory the requirements of the American Society for Testing and Materials toy safety standard (ASTM F963) (24) and requires that testing of children’s products be conducted by accredited third-party laboratories (25).
Yet the CPSIA authority to address toxic chemicals in toys is still quite limited. While it sets stricter standards for Pb and restricts six phthalates in children’s products, it does not address the larger universe of unregulated or under-regulated chemicals in children’s products (26).
The EPA has recently stepped up its efforts to address the problem of toxic chemicals in commerce and some of these efforts may have implications for toxic chemicals in children’s products. Among other activities, the agency has developed action plans for a number of chemicals, outlining future regulatory action (27). For example, EPA’s Phthalates Action Plan notes concern about children’s exposure and identifies this as an area for further study and regulatory action (28).
The EU recently overhauled its 20-year-old Toy Safety Directive. In contrast to the CPSIA, the Directive takes a more comprehensive approach to addressing toxic chemicals in toys, prohibiting carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxicants (CMRs) in toys. It also sets new limits for 19 substances, some of which were not previously regulated, and limits the use of allergenic fragrances. The EU Directive requires manufacturers to conduct a safety assessment for each toy before it is placed on the market, including an analysis of chemical hazards that the toy may present and an assessment of potential exposure to such hazards. Every toy must bear a marking indicating that it meets these requirements (29).
European consumer advocates are concerned that certain provisions in the law will allow manufacturers to continue to use toxic materials in toys (30). The revised Directive allows manufacturers to self-certify, rather than requiring third-party certification of toys. In addition, while the law prohibits CMRs in toys, exemptions will be granted if these substances are inaccessible to children; no suitable alternative exists; or a scientific committee determines that the use is safe.
Companies manufacturing and selling toys in Europe are also subject to the EU’s comprehensive chemicals policy known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals). Under REACH, companies must disclose the presence of chemicals in their products if the European Chemicals Agency has identified and included the chemicals on its “Candidate List” of “Substances of Very High Concern” and if the chemicals are present in a product at a level above 0.1 wt % (31). To date, 38 chemicals are on this list, with more expected to be added over time (32).
In the U.S., a number of state governments have adopted legislation to ban specific chemicals of concern, such as lead, phthalates, and bisphenol A (BPA), in children’s products, and to increase transparency about the presence of toxic chemicals in these products. For example, Maine and Washington adopted legislation in 2008 that, among other provisions, requires companies to submit data to the state on toxic chemicals in children’s products (33, 34). These laws require each state to create a list of chemicals of high concern. Maine has listed 1700 chemicals of high concern based on their inherent hazard; this list will be narrowed to identify priority chemicals based on potential exposure. Manufacturers will be required to disclose to the state their use of priority chemicals. In June 2010, Maine proposed designating BPA as a priority chemical. Washington recently issued a draft list of 66 priority chemicals (35).
In addition, some state governments are beginning to require industry to conduct assessments to identify safer alternatives to chemicals of concern for specific applications. Under Maine’s legislation, a manufacturer or distributor of a children’s product that contains a priority chemical may be required to conduct an alternatives assessment. Draft regulations being developed by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control Authority would also require companies using a chemical of concern in certain product categories to conduct an alternatives assessment (36). To support these and related efforts, the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts Lowell is leading a multistate initiative to develop consistent methodologies for assessing alternatives to toxic chemicals (37).
Prior to this new wave of legislative efforts, some states already had programs in place to increase transparency about toxic chemicals in consumer products, including toys. California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, more commonly known as Proposition 65, requires businesses to notify consumers when a product contains any chemical that is “known to the state of California to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity (38).” Eight states require companies selling mercury (Hg)-added products to submit detailed product information to a centralized database (39).
Finally, efforts to gain more information about toxic chemicals in toys may benefit from a new project, led by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), to form a harmonized international information system on chemicals in products. In 2009, UNEP conducted a global survey of stakeholders and identified toys and children’s products as a high priority sector for UNEP’s continued work (40).

2 Nongovernmental responses

Since 2007, two U.S. organizations have worked to fill information gaps by creating web-based systems to give consumers information on chemicals in toys and other products. The Michigan-based Ecology Center (41) tests toys and other consumer products for the presence of six chemicals that can be detected with an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) sensor: Pb, Cd, chlorine (Cl), arsenic (As), bromine (Br), and Hg. The database provides a rating (high, medium, or low concern) for each product.
GoodGuide provides information on the environmental, social, and health performance of products and companies by integrating information from a variety of data sources. GoodGuide provides information on more than 65,000 products, including toys, food, and household and personal care products. It provides both a summary score for health/social/environmental attributes and individual scores so that consumers can focus on a particular attribute (42).
In 2009, EcoLogo, an environmental certification organization, launched a public stakeholder process to develop an eco-label for toys (43). This standard, to be finalized by December 2010, will consider the entire product life cycle in determining criteria for safe, healthy, and environmentally sustainable toys. These criteria will provide valuable design guidance for manufacturers that choose to lead in this arena.

3 Industry responses

The leading U.S. trade group for toy manufacturers, the Toy Industry Association, has created the Toy Safety Certification Program, designed to ensure that toys sold in the U.S. conform to the requirements of the CPSIA and the toy safety standard, ASTM F963. This program is valuable to manufacturers as it provides a consistent evaluation method and is designed to minimize testing costs. It requires a hazard/risk analysis in the design stage, factory audits, and production sample testing. However, it does not go beyond ensuring compliance with existing safety standards.
Some small and medium-sized toy companies are taking leadership in developing environmentally sustainable toys. The Eco-Toy Alliance, a partnership of four small toy companies, has created a Web site to educate consumers about the attributes of eco-friendly toys and market their products (44). This may signify a trend among smaller and start-up companies to use green product features to their strategic advantage. In February 2010, the New York Toy Fair, one of the world’s largest toy trade shows, included an “earth-friendly product zone” for the first time.
The company World Environmental Regulatory Compliance Solutions (The WERCS) has developed a tool called the GreenWERCS Chemical Screening Tool that evaluates chemical products such as paints and cleaning products for human and environmental health risks and scores products on this basis. The WERCS keeps formulation data confidential but provides retailers with information on chemical hazards. In principle, retailers can use this information to compare competing products and encourage suppliers to substitute safer ingredients for harmful ones (45). Although the GreenWERCS tool is not currently used for toys, this approach could be applied to children’s products. Business-to-business transparency initiatives may prove to be powerful drivers of change if retailers use this information to select greener products and motivate their suppliers to redesign products.
Some large retailers are working with suppliers to define design elements for eco-friendly toys and in some cases to create private label products that meet these criteria. For example, in March 2008 Toys R Us announced a new line of eco-friendly toys, including those made with FSC certified wood and organic cotton (46). While it is not clear how retailers enforce requirements, these actions signal the potential power of the retail sector to drive market changes.

Recommendations for government and industry

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What does the U.S. government need to do?

New regulations on individual chemicals have had some effect on toys sold in the U.S. CPSC recalls for Pb in toys have decreased significantly, from over 17 million units in 2007, to 1.3 million in 2008, to approximately 110,000 in 2009 (47). However, eliminating toxic chemicals in children’s products is still a distant goal.
With over 80,000 chemicals in commerce, it is clear that a chemical-by-chemical regulatory approach cannot solve the problem. A solution will require significant policy changes (48). Four key elements should be part of these improvements.

1 Ban or restrict the use of chemicals with well-documented toxicity in toys and other children’s products

At a minimum, these include persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals (PBTs), carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxicants (CMRs), neurotoxicants, and endocrine disruptors. To be effective and avoid unintended consequences, such restrictions must delineate categories of chemicals rather than simply regulating individual toxic chemicals. The EU’s approach to CMRs in the Toy Safety Directive may provide a model.

2 Ensure consumers’ “right to know” about toxic chemicals in children’s products

The federal government should develop requirements for labeling products with information about toxic constituents, as well as submission of data to centralized databases.
In addition to empowering consumers to protect themselves, transparency changes the marketplace. Transparency requirements can motivate manufacturers to change their practices to avoid embarrassing disclosures and maintain market share (49). For example, California’s Proposition 65 has motivated many companies to reformulate or redesign products to eliminate or reduce the presence of a toxic chemical (50, 51).

3 Require chemical manufacturers to generate and disclose basic toxicity information for all chemicals

Responsibility for demonstrating the safety of chemicals should rest with chemical manufacturers, rather than government. Application of this principle is needed to improve the safety of children’s products and consumer products in general and is at the core of the EU’s REACH legislation. Current work to implement these new requirements in the EU can serve as a head start for industry and regulators in the U.S. The Toxic Chemicals Safety Act, introduced in Congress in July 2010, includes a requirement for disclosure of chemical ingredients, with protection of confidential business information (52).

4 Promote the design and development of safer children’s products

The federal government should provide incentives to encourage manufacturers to develop safer chemicals, materials, and products, by increasing its support of green chemistry and green design research and development in industry and academia. The EPA’s Green Chemistry and Design for Environment programs should be expanded. In addition, the federal government should actively support the work of states that are working to develop consistent methodologies for alternatives assessment of chemicals.

What does the toy industry need to do?

In parallel with efforts by government to improve regulation of chemicals in toys, there are significant opportunities for the toy industry to take proactive measures.

1 Identify chemicals of concern and establish robust systems to test for these chemicals

One important step forward for the toy industry would be to develop a list of chemicals of concern that are found in children’s products. This information would enable the toy sector to be proactive in eliminating these chemicals where safer alternatives are available, and jointly to pursue research on safer substitutes where alternatives do not yet exist. Many other sectors, including electronics, apparel (53), and automotive (54), have worked together to develop lists of substances of concern, and have created systems for improving information flow about chemicals throughout their large and complex global supply chains.

2 Engage openly with stakeholders

It would be useful for the industry to interact more directly with all of its stakeholders, including children’s environmental health advocates, to address concerns about toxic chemicals. One avenue for this engagement would be participation in the Business-NGO Working Group, a collaboration of business leaders from leading companies and nongovernmental organizations that are working together to encourage the use of safer chemicals in consumer products (55). This group is convened by the nonprofit organization Clean Production Action. The Green Chemistry and Commerce Council, a network of some 100 firms and other organizations committed to developing safer chemicals and materials, convened by the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, is another valuable resource (56).

3 Develop a sustainability roadmap

The toy industry should develop a roadmap for the development of sustainable children’s products. Eliminating hazardous chemicals from children’s products, while a critical goal, does not ensure that these products are safe, healthy, and environmentally sound throughout their life cycles. Numerous reports published over the past decade by advocacy groups and industry auditing organizations have documented unhealthy and hazardous working conditions in toy factories (57, 58).
As a place to start, the toy industry can use the criteria being developed by environmental certification organizations to encourage companies to design and manufacture safer and greener products. Additional tools and resources are also available (59). For example, the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production has developed a tool for product designers and manufacturers to help evaluate environmental, social, and economic impacts of existing products and to design new products that minimize these impacts (60). This framework can be used to redesign products and production systems in advance of new regulations.

The road ahead

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Concern over the problem of toxic chemicals in toys is growing. Although significant action has been taken by government, industry, and the advocacy community, new revelations make it clear that the problem has yet to be solved. The recent findings on Cd in children’s jewelry and other children’s products have again ignited passions and are triggering new, narrowly focused federal and state legislative proposals in the U.S. (61).
New efforts to solve this problem would benefit from a better understanding of the root causes, a clear view of the roles of government, manufacturers, and retailers, and an awareness of the constructive role that the nonprofit sector can play. Effective regulation is an essential precondition, necessary to establish an acceptable baseline level of safety for product manufacturers, as well as for the government agencies that are responsible for enforcing safety standards. The road ahead will certainly be challenging. However, until significant changes in policy and practice occur, consumers cannot be confident that products they purchase for children are safe, healthy, and environmentally sustainable.

Author Information

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  • Corresponding Author
    • Monica Becker - Monica Becker & Associates Sustainability Consultants, Rochester, New York
  • Authors
    • Sally Edwards - Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Massachusetts
    • Rachel I. Massey - Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Massachusetts

Biography

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Monica Becker

Monica Becker has been an independent consultant for the past 2 years, working with government, industry, and academic organizations. Consulting contracts during this time were with: the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council based at the University of Massachusetts Lowell; Green Depot (an on-line retailer of green products); Harris Corporation; United Nations Environment Programme; the New York Industrial Retention Network and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Prior to that Ms. Becker held management positions at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Golisano Institute for Sustainability for 10 years. Sally Edwards is a Research Associate at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Her work is currently funded by the New York Community Trust and the Merck Family Fund. She is also serving as an advisor to EcoLogo, an environmental certification organization that is developing an eco-label for toys. She receives an honorarium for this work from TerraChoice, the company that administers the EcoLogo program. In her work to promote the development of sustainable children’s products, Dr. Edwards interacts with many manufacturers and retailers. In 2009, as a contractor to the Blu Skye sustainability consulting firm she prepared slide presentations on toy sustainability issues and design priorities for Walmart toy merchandisers to present to their major toy suppliers in China.Rachel Massey is Policy Analyst and Policy Program Manager at the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The Institute’s work is funded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under the Toxics Use Reduction Act. Ms. Massey has also received project funding from the Swedish Chemicals Agency and the United Nations Environment Programme. Please address correspondence regarding this article to [email protected].

Acknowledgment

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The authors thank Janet Hutchins for significant contributions to researching and drafting this article; Ken Geiser, Joel Tickner, Yve Torrie, and Cathy Crumbley for detailed comments; and Ann Blake for the photo.

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