Many people don't realize that the plastic toys our children play with may contain harmful chemicals. Children get exposed to these chemicals by touching the toy (absorption through the skin), or ingesting chemicals (e.g. when a baby mouths the toy, or child ingests dust from the toy), but also from breathing in chemicals leaching out of all the plastic toys in the room into the air. This has been known a long time, yet here we are...
An international team of researchers looked at 419 chemicals and found 126 chemicals of concern (chemicals known to be harmful) in plastic toys - chemicals that they felt should no longer be used in children's toys. Many are endocrine disruptors, while others are linked to cancer. In this group were 31 plasticizer chemicals (including phthalates and BPA [bisphenol]), 18 flame retardants, and 8 fragrances. These chemicals can be measured in the urine. [Note: they did not look at some chemicals, such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, etc.]
The researchers conclude: "Nowadays, existing regulations mainly prioritize a small set of chemicals, and regulators struggle to keep up with the thousands of new chemicals entering the market every year." They stress that we need to avoid "regrettable substitution" (substituting a dangerous chemical with another equally dangerous related chemical - such as replacing BPA with BPS). We need to identify safer substances that can be used in toys.
The more plastic toys in a room, the more exposure. They are outgassing all the time - even if you can't smell it. Soft plastic toys emit (outgas) the most chemicals. Children are especially vulnerable to these chemicals. Currently there is no international agreement over which chemicals to ban or regulate, and not enough chemicals are regulated or banned in toys and children's products.
There is no way right now to know which plastic toys contain dangerous chemicals and which don't. Toy manufacturers do not tell us what chemicals are in the toys. So... yes, we absolutely need (global) regulations to totally ban the use of certain chemicals in plastic toys, especially because so many toys are produced in countries with weak environmental regulations. We need to use safer chemical alternatives in plastic toys.
Bottom line: Try to have fewer plastic toys, especially soft plastic toys. Try to ventilate rooms frequently (every day) by opening windows, even if only for a short while.
From Science Daily: Potentially harmful chemicals found in plastic toys
It has long been known that several chemicals used in plastic toys in different parts of the world can be harmful to human health. However, it is difficult for parents to figure out how to avoid plastic toys containing chemicals that may cause possible health risks to their children.
Regulations and labelling schemes are different across regions and countries, and there is no international agreement on which substances should be banned from use in toy materials. For the most part, regulations and international lists of 'chemicals of concern' in toys focus on certain substance groups with known harmful properties, such as phthalates, but do not cover the wider range of chemicals found in plastic toys.
Researchers from DTU and the University of Michigan together with UN Environment have looked into this important issue, analyzed data on chemical functions and amounts found in plastic toys, and quantified related children exposure and potential health risks. They ranked the chemicals according to their health risk and compared these results with existing priority substances lists from around the world. The study has been published with open access in the journal Environment International.
"Out of 419 chemicals found in hard, soft and foam plastic materials used in children toys, we identified 126 substances that can potentially harm children's health either via cancer or non-cancer effects, including 31 plasticizers, 18 flame retardants, and 8 fragrances. Being harmful in our study means that for these chemicals, estimated exposure doses exceed regulatory Reference Doses (RfD) or cancer risks exceed regulatory risk thresholds. These substances should be prioritized for phase-out in toy materials and replaced with safer and more sustainable alternatives," says Peter Fantke, Professor at DTU Management and the study's principle investigator.
Nicolò Aurisano, the study's first author and Peter's PhD student, explains that toy manufacturers usually do not provide any information on the chemical content in the toys, and toy composition databases are missing. Hence, the researchers had to collect and scrutinize information on chemicals contents in toy materials based on chemical test data for specific toys reported in 25 different peer-reviewed studies.
Nicolò further states: "We have combined the reported chemical content in toy materials with material characteristics and toy use patterns, such as how long a child typically plays with a toy, whether it puts it into the mouth, and how many toys are found in a household per child. We used this information to estimate exposure using high-throughput mass-balance models, and compared exposure doses with doses below which there is no unacceptable risk to the children."
The researchers find that children in Western countries have on average about 18 kilograms of plastic toys, which underlines the large amounts of plastic that children are surrounded by on a daily basis.
Chemicals that the researchers identified to be of possible concern for children's health include, for example, widely known phthalates and brominated flame retardants but also the two plasticizers butyrate TXIB and citrate ATBC, which are used as alternatives to some regulated phthalates.
"These alternatives showed indications for high non-cancer risk potentials in exposed children and should be further assessed to avoid 'regrettable substitutions', where one harmful chemical is replaced with a similarly harmful alternative. Overall, soft plastics cause higher exposure to certain harmful chemicals, and inhalation exposure dominates overall children exposure, because children potentially inhale chemicals diffusing out of all toys in the room, while usually only touching one toy at the time," Peter Fantke explains.