Foul Play: Living in a Toxic Toyland

Despite increased regulation, our babes still live in a toxic toyland. Here’s how to avoid chemicals in your GI Joes and Elmos.

WHEN YOU BECOME A PARENT, you begin to see your possessions as grenades disguised as houseplants, electrical cords, lamps and throw pillows.

Seemingly, everything within a little arm’s reach can pose a threat. As parents, it’s your job to protect your kiddo from the constant presence of these domestic landmines, and nowhere is that threat more real than in your toy box.

While the U.S. has focused on mechanical safety—such as choking hazards—regulators have given less attention to the toxins within toys. Chemicals that have been found in toys at dangerous levels include lead, flame retardants, Bisphenol A, certain dyes and phthalates, an additive that helps PVC plastics become flexible and that may affect human reproduction and development.

True, the federal government and state governments have increased regulation and requirements for some of these chemicals. There are more than a dozen chemicals restricted nationally in toys, including lead and six types of phthalates.

However, recalls for violating these standards happen after millions of products have been sold. Some products sneak through our global supply chain into the American marketplace. And in some cases, there are no regulations in place. That would be the case for BPA, which is banned in toys in seven U.S. states but not federally or in Colorado. BPA has been shown to affect neural and reproductive development and has been linked to diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A recent study showed the presence of BPA in all 59 baby teethers that were tested.

According to studies, there is still a lack of research and regulation around chemicals in toys, and that’s incredibly frustrating for parents.

However, there are fixes: You can check with your favorite toy company or retailer about chemicals they use or don’t use. You can search online inventories like to see how your child’s favorite toys rank.

Or you can buy toys from a company that you trust, that’s transparent and that discloses what their toys are made of. While they are not as flashy—literally—as battery-operated, animatronic, noise-making doohickies, simpler toys can be better for the environment, better for the imagination and better for your child’s health.

Chris Clemmer is the co-founder of Fort Collins-based BeginAgain Toys. Clemmer spent years working for major toy companies, where he learned about the dynamics of children and their toys. It wasn’t until he had his own child that he began thinking about the materials in those toys. 

“There are cleaner ways to make these products,” Clemmer says. “It’s not the easy way to make toys, but it’s important. It is important to make toys out of smarter materials and make them healthier for the child.”

He now “geeks out” over making cleaner, more sustainable playthings. That includes using natural rubber and wood as well as paints that are plant based. BeginAgain has even released a line of John Deere toys made with a corncob-based sugar material, which is stronger than plastic but biodegradable.

For his company, it’s a balance between environment and health.

“We don’t know the results of those chemicals being in our toys,” he says. “Now we are starting to learn the science of the impact on the human body and our water. It’s scary. That’s why we do what we do. It’s not just for saving the environment; it’s for the health and safety of kids.”

BeginAgain’s toys address more than just physical health. They address mental health as well. Their toys look slightly old fashioned compared to many of the products that line big-box chains, and that’s the goal. Clemmer hopes his toys will inspire some imagination in a generation that is plugged in even at a very young age.

He wants kids to disconnect from their “electronic pacifiers”—what he calls iPads—and let toys help them to develop creativity and ingenuity.

“We’ve started to see the consumer looking for smarter, cleaner, locally made products,” Clemmer says. “They want toys that detach children from the iPad. Parents want something more imaginative.”

Clemmer sees a shift in consumer demand. If that shift continues, there may be larger movements to strengthen regulation, decrease use of potentially harmful chemicals and increase natural products in the marketplace.

In the mean time, parents must continue to be diligent—until toys and everything else seem a little less like grenades in disguise.

Tips for Healthier Toys:

Visit from the Ecology Center or to search for your child’s favorite toys and discover their ingredients.

Skip plastic toys. Sound impossible? At least limit plastic and look for plastic toys labeled #1, 2, 4 or 5 in the chasing arrows symbol.

Avoid anything made with PVC or BPA. No label? Call the manufacturer.

Avoid older plastic toys. You may think it’s eco-friendly to recycle your older child’s toys, but most regulations that limit chemicals in toys were enacted within the last eight years.

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