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Q: How do I know if my kid's toys are really safe? —Elise Davidson, Spring Lake, NJ
A: Many toys contain lead, which if ingested can cause learning disabilities and brain damage. Every year, millions of toys, including some made by big American brands, are recalled by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) due to unsafe levels of lead—usually in paint. Also of concern are phthalate plasticizers linked to developmental harm and toxic glues in toys made of pressed wood and particleboard.
If your child is younger than 3, or still occasionally puts toys in his or her mouth, it’s a good idea to screen all toys. Swallowing chips of lead paint or pieces of the heavy metal might contribute to lead poisoning. Phthalates have been found, in some tests, to migrate out of soft vinyl “teething” type toys.
Below are some tips to follow when looking for new toys or examining old ones.
- Avoid polyvinyl chloride (PVC #3) plastic. PVC often contains both lead and phthalates. See Greenpeace’s 2003 Toy report card. Manufacturers such as Brio, Gerber, Lego, and others that have gone PVC-free in all their products. Also see the PVC contaminant-and lead-free toy list at Good Guide. There is a terrific searchable database that vets thousands of individual toys at HealthyToys.org.
- Check old or new toys by finding the name against in the CPSC’s recall list to see if it poses choking or strangulation risks.
- Note where the toy was made. Metal and plastic toys and cheap jewelry made in Asia have dominated the list of CPSC recalls every year. Don’t buy cheap toys from unknown manufacturers.
- Test the surface of your children’s toys for lead using swab kits such as those sold by Abotex. While these aren’t failproof, they can confirm your suspicions and your resolve to remove a tainted toy from play.
- Look for toys made of certified organic cotton and unpainted hardwood, ideally wood that’s certified sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council from retailers such as IKEA and Holgate Toys.
Mindy Pennybacker is Whole Living’s “Econundrums” columnist. See her answers to reader questions and ask your own here. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.