EcoWaste Coalition warns of toxic metals in children's toys

by Michelle Ong, ANC

Posted at Jul 21 2011 02:17 PM | Updated as of Jul 21 2011 11:51 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Toys are essential in helping foster a child's physical, emotional and mental development. But to the untrained eye, they may also be tainted with unseen poisons.

For all their attractiveness, depending on how they're made or what they're made of, seemingly harmless toys could cause cancer or damage to the nervous system or the brain, warned some environmentalists.

Toxic threat in toys

As recent product recalls have shown, the threats posed by toxic contamination are real.

Recent studies by environmental groups like the EcoWaste Coalition on the presence of harmful substances are just as glaring. 

Toys are tested for the presence of harmful metals using the XRF Analyzer, the gun-shaped gadget at right. Photo by Caroline Howard, ANC

"In general, since the products are not labeled, and you can't physically tell the difference between one which contains the toxic metal and one which doesn't, it's very confusing and difficult for the consumer," Dr. Joe Di Gangi, Senior Policy Adviser of the International POPS Elimination Network (IPEN), said recently on the "Going Green" segment of "Mornings@ANC".

Environmental group IPEN together with the EcoWaste Coalition recently held its own State of the Toys Analysis (SOTA). For the very first time in the country, they conducted a public investigation that put local and imported toys to the ultimate test using an XRF Analyzer.

XRF Analyzer

The X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) Analyzer is a gun-shaped device that scans a material, then reads it for metal content by sending a beam of radiation that detects the metal's fingerprint.

"The machine can identify about 20 elements based on fluorescence and also identifies how much of them are present. So the device is portable and it gives the results in about 30 seconds," said Dr. Di Gangi.

While it can detect 20 different toxic metals, the XRF Analyzer focuses primarily on 6 metals that are in the Philippines' priority list: lead, cadmium, antimony, arsenic, chromium, and mercury, measuring their levels in parts per million (PPM).

Of 200 toys tested for the presence of these 6 toxic metals, 30% were found to contain at least one toxic metal, others more, with 70% containing no toxic or very low presence of toxic metals.

Lead was the most common toxic metal found in the tested toys, followed by antimony and cadmium.

Dr. Di Gangi pointed out that some plastic toys like imitation spaghetti were particularly disturbing because they were an invitation to eat. A Philippine-made painted wooden wagon with alphabet blocks registered the largest quantity of toxic metals at over 11,400 ppm, leagues beyond the tolerable industry limit of 90 ppm.

Incidentally, while many cheap toys are known to be sourced from China, a colorful textile alphabet book from China passed the test with no indication of lead content.

US environmental groups have identified safe levels of exposure to these elements. But overexposure to them are known to have adverse effects on human health.

Overexposure to lead, which can be found in paint and vinyl plastic, can lead to brain damage. Antimony, arsenic and chromium, meanwhile, are known carcinogens.

Booming industry

Toys are a booming industry.

According to the International Council of Toy Industries, in 2009 alone, the toy industry was worth over $80 billion dollars.

Studies show that nearly 30% of the toy market is in Asia, and the toy market is bound to grow some more in the coming years.

For all its potentials, Dr. Di Gangi noted that the toy industry needs to shape up, and take responsibility for its products.

"Agencies have an opportunity to monitor the presence of these elements and to hold the industry accountable for their manufacturing process. They have to make the role of being able to control the marketplace. However, at the same time, they also need to have the budget and regulatory authority to sort of obligate the industry to perform its duties.

"The ability to look and analyze is important but just as important is the technical responsibility of companies that make them because parents should not have to worry whether their toys contain some kind of substance," Dr. Di Gangi said.

He pointed out that it is never more urgent than now to learn about the hazards of these toys.

Toy manufacturers should be made to disclose their chemical content to the regulatory authorities, Dr. Di Gangi added. Toy industries need to shift their production toward green design and alternatives. And with good reason, because when it comes to toys, human health and the environment is no game.