What's Lurking in Your Child's Toybox?

Child product safety advocates are sounding the alarm on heavy metals and plastic chemicals being found in toys and clothing.

May 3, 2013

A number of harmful chemicals and heavy metals are winding up in kids' toys, a new report shows.

Playtime should not be polluting. No parent can argue with that sentiment. But a new report from the nonprofit Washington Toxics Coalition may make you rethink how badly your child needs yet another plastic plaything.


The group analyzed a year's worth of information submitted by major retailers, such as Gap and Walmart, and found that more than 5,000 products sold for children contain harmful chemicals.

Washington is unique in that a law in the state, passed in 2008 and known as the Children's Safe Product Act, requires that manufacturers selling products for children report the presence of certain toxic chemicals found in their products. The law went into effect in early 2012, and those state-mandated reports supplied the information for the Washington Toxic Coalition's report.

Child Health Threatened by Everyday Chemicals, Say Nation's Pediatricians

Retailers reported finding 41 hazardous compounds in children's bedding, clothing, footwear, toys, and other gear, the most common being cobalt, an element used to create blue dyes. According to the World Health Organization, some cobalt compounds have been linked to cancer. Cobalt was found in more than 1,200 toy, accessory, and bedding products sold at the Gap, Gymboree, Nike, H&M, and JC Penney.

Another chemical, ethylene glycol, was also found in more than 1,000 products, despite being linked to birth defects. It's used in a variety of cosmetics and personal care products, as well as in the production of polyester clothing.

Other chemicals detected in a wide variety of children's products were:

• Antimony and antimony compounds, found in toys and in polyester clothing but linked to cancer
• Methyl ethyl ketone, used as a solvent in furniture finishes and paints but linked to reproductive damage
• Octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane, a hormone-disrupting compound used widely in sunscreens and personal care products
• Styrene, a carcinogen and developmental toxin most children are exposed to through polystyrene foam toy fillings
• Phthalates, hormone disruptors used to soften plastics and in furniture finishes and nail polishes. The federal government has already banned some phthalates from children's products.

Because of the nature of the Washington law, retailers aren't required to specify the exact products in which the above chemicals were found, only the product category, for instance, party hats or car seats.

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And though the presence of any of these hazardous materials doesn't necessarily mean that a child will suffer harm, the potential for exposure is there, the authors write. "Children may be exposed when they put items in their mouths or products are used on their skin, or when the chemicals escape into indoor air or household dust. Children often use everyday items in unexpected ways, such as chewing on their shoes or a T-shirt, so products containing hazardous chemicals can result in unanticipated chemical exposures," the report states.

The hope, according to report authors, is that reports like this will lead to more stringent chemical-reporting laws. The federal government already bans some phthalates and all lead-based components from children's products, but as this report shows, those bans aren't always effective.

If you want to prevent these materials from overtaking your child's bedroom, opt for organic and natural materials whenever you can.