What Chemicals, Additives and Contaminants Are Found in Children's Toys?

Kids spend a lot of time playing with toys that are made of all types of different materials. Toys often contain paint, glue and other chemicals. Some of these chemicals are harmless, but some are not. Because a child's health is sensitive to what it's exposed to in its environment, it's important to know what to look out for when buying toys, and what types of things to avoid.

Because young children's bodies are growing and developing every day, it's particularly important to be aware of what types of contaminants and harmful chemicals they are exposed to. Toxic compounds can be found in many types of materials such as plastics, PVC and other polymers. In addition, metals like lead, mercury and cadmium are used as additives.

There exist some regulations that dictate what maximum quantity of a chemical is accepted in products. It's believed that below that maximum, there isn't enough of the chemical to be harmful, but this maximum is usually aimed at healthy adults. When you consider the growing body of a child, they can be much more sensitive to contaminants and pollutants.

In matters of safety, toys are tricky. A lot of the important properties of toys -- colors, softness or hardness, durability and ease of cleaning -- are things that rely on artificial polymers and additives. And toys spend a lot of time in kids' hands: sometimes they even end up in their mouths. It's clear that it's important to be careful about what we buy when we're at the toy store.

In order to understand the risks, let's look at some chemicals and additives found in toys. Cheaper toys are often the most likely to contain these toxins, because these harmful ingredients are often the cheapest way to make the product.

- Lead is a metal that is found in small quantities in paint and pigments. It can also be found as a stabilizer in PVC, or as an ingredient in metal castings such as toy jewelry. In old homes, wall paint may contain significant amount of toxic lead. In the US, it's legal for lead to be present in products in small amounts, but health studies show that even the smallest dose has an effect on child development. Brain development is affected in particular. Lead might be one of the more dangerous toxins found in toys, so more and more manufacturers are avoiding in completely. But many toys still contain lead, in particular colorful ones, so it's best to look for "lead-free" labels. One recent study detected lead in one third of all US toys that were tested.

- Mercury is another metal which is harmful to the nervous system. It can be found in inks and glues, as well as some polyurethane compounds. As with lead, the quantities of mercury in products are restricted to be very low, but for children this might nevertheless be a risk. Although it's not as common as lead, it's still poisonous and is a hazard.

- Cadmium, also a metal, is sometimes present in PVC, and unlike lead and mercury, there are no restrictions for it in the US. This is troubling, since it's a known carcinogen and exposure to it has been associated with developmental problems. Cadmium is also used in paints and pigments, so it's worth paying attention to the more colorful toys.

- Bromine is a chemical used as a fire retardant. It's most commonly found in textiles (to prevent them from catching on fire) and electronics (to prevent them from burning if they overheat). It's also found in furniture. Bromine is very toxic and can cause delayed development, reproductive problems and can affect the brain. Regulations in the US have banned certain forms of bromine compounds, but not all. Many bromine fire retardants are still being used, and the toy industry doesn't have any restrictions against using them in toys. Along with lead, bromine has been found in cheap toy jewelery.

- Phthalates are a dangerous class of chemical that are used to modify the rigidity of PVC products. While PVC is not dangerous in itself, phtalates (as well as lead and mercury as mentioned above) can leech out of it and cause poisonous effects. Many bath toys are made of phthalate-containing PVC because the material is soft and pleasant to touch. Rubber duckies, for instance, are rarely made of rubber: they are made of PVC. In a bath environment, where a child is exposed to bath water, toxic contaminants are obviously a big concern. The concern is even greater when children put such toys in their mouth.

So with all these potential poisons in toys, what's the best thing to do? Get informed and learn about what materials are being used in toys. Find out what manufacturer you're buying from and make sure they adhere to safe manufacturing practices. Toys that are 100% safe might be slightly more expensive, because safer alternatives to these chemicals are often more costly, but the peace of mind is definitely worth the expense.