Over 100 harmful chemicals found in children’s plastic toys

LYNGBY, Denmark — Plastic toys can bring hours of entertainment to children, with many having large collections laying on the floor of their rooms. Unfortunately, certain plastic toys also leech potentially toxic chemicals. A recent study suggests that over 100 chemicals found in plastic toys may pose health risks to children.

Regulations of potentially harmful chemicals in toys vary across countries. International regulations and lists of “chemicals of concern” in toys tend to focus on substances of known harmful properties, while ignoring hundreds of other chemicals. A team of researchers from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), U.N. Environment, and the University of Michigan sought to estimate the potential risks these toys carry to children.

More toys mean more exposure

First, the researchers collected data on toy chemical composition from peer-reviewed studies. According to first author of the study, Nicolò Aurisano, toy manufacturers usually do not provide any information on the chemical content in the toys.

With their chemical composition data in hand, the team estimated exposure to children. The researchers estimated exposure using a computer model to combine measurements and chemical composition data.

“We 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 their mouth, and how many toys are found in a household per child,” says Aurisano in a university release.

For any given chemical, the dose, route of exposure, and the length of time an exposure lasts can influence toxicity to a child. The dose of chemicals from plastic toys depend on how many toys are in the room. The researchers found that kids have about 40 pounds of plastic toys, on average.

“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 researcher adds.

Surprisingly, the computer model estimates that inhalation is the main route of contamination from soft plastic toys. Results also show ingestion (hand-to-mouth) comes in as a close second.

“Inhalation exposure dominates overall exposure, because children potentially inhale chemicals diffusing out of all toys in the room, while usually only touching one toy at the time,” senior author and DTU professor Peter Fantke explains.

Over 100 potentially harmful chemicals

“Out of 419 chemicals found in plastic materials used in children’s toys, we identified 126 substances that can potentially harm children’s health either via cancer or non-cancer effects,” Fantke reports. “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.”

Some of the most concerning chemicals found in the study include eight fragrances, 18 flame retardants, and 31 plasticizers. Plasticizers are chemicals that manufacturers add to soft plastics to make them more bendable. Study authors note they are the most common substances in these toys. Two plasticizers in particular, butyrate TXIB and citrate ATBC, are of serious concern to the team. Both plasticizers are manufacturing alternatives for more regulated chemicals such as certain phthalates.

“The 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,” Fantke says. “These substances should be prioritized for phase-out in toy materials and replaced with safer and more sustainable alternatives.”

New metric for chemical safety assessment

There are many lists that inform consumers that a chemical is present in plastic toys. However, there is no information about the levels at which the use of chemicals in the different situations would be safe for children. To address this issue, the researchers introduced a new way to measure chemical contents in toys based on exposure and risk.

“Since the same chemicals can be found in different concentrations across toy materials, we have estimated the ‘maximum acceptable chemical content (MACC)’ for all the substances reported to be found in plastic toys,” Fantke concludes. “Such information will enable decision-makers to develop benchmarks for various chemicals in different applications, but will also help toy companies to evaluate the amount of chemicals used for a specific function against such benchmarks.”

Until there is more regulation over all chemicals, children will have a hard time avoiding all harmful chemicals in their plastic toys. Therefore, the researchers advise the public to reduce their contact of plastic materials in general and avoid the use of soft plastic toys. Additionally, parents should ensure their child’s room has enough ventilation if they are playing indoors.

The study appears in the journal Environment International.

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