Last Month's Most Accessed Feature: X-ray toys: Toxic contaminants

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  • Published: Mar 1, 2018
  • Categories: X-ray Spectrometry
thumbnail image: Last Month's Most Accessed Feature: X-ray toys: Toxic contaminants

Plastic not fantastic

X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry has been used by British scientists to analyse the presence of elements within individual plastic toys. The study reveals worrying levels of bromine, cadmium, lead, and other chronically toxic elements. Photo by David Bradley

X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry has been used by British scientists to analyse the presence of elements within individual plastic toys. The study reveals worrying levels of bromine, cadmium, lead, and other chronically toxic elements that might leach from broken toys chewed or inadvertently swallowed by a child.

Andrew Turner and his colleagues at the University of Plymouth, UK, tested second-hand toys obtained from homes, nursery schools, and charity shops in the South West of England. The 200 different toys included cars, trains, construction products, jewelry figures, and puzzles. Many of the twos would be considered very chewable by young children. The team tested for elements including antimony, barium, bromine, cadmium, chromium, lead, and selenium. All of these elements are considered toxic, especially with prolonged exposure even at low concentrations. Items that were typically yellow, red, or black were found to the most worrisome.

Heavy metal toys

The team explains that components of the plastic used in the manufacture of many toys, especially older toys on the second-hand market or hand-me-downs could pose a risk to children's health. Such products may have been produced at a time when international safety guidelines were not in place or when tolerances and even analytical quality control standards were lower. The team reports details of their findings in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Additional tests to simulate conditions in the stomach involved putting samples of the plastic toys in dilute hydrochloric acid. The team found that in such conditions several items released quantities of bromine, cadmium and lead that were far in excess of limits set by the European Council's Toy Safety Directive. The amount of cadmium leaches from some toys was at least ten times the safety limit.

Hand-me-down parade

Turner's team has previously investigated the lead and cadmium content of decorated drinking glasses and found some of those to contain levels of those metallic elements which would be considered hazardous to health. Similarly, they have also found that paints used to decorate and mark different areas and apparatus in children's playgrounds may also represent a public health hazard.

"This is the first systematic investigation of hazardous elements in second-hand plastic toys in the UK," Turner explains. "Second hand toys are an attractive option to families because they can be inherited directly from friends or relatives or obtained cheaply and readily from charity stores, flea markets, and the internet," he adds. However, while the Toy Safety Directive applies to new products entering the market, there are unfortunately no regulations to cover the re-use or re-sale of older toys anyone of which might fail modern safety tests.

Turner points out that the introduction and refinement of the Toy Safety Directive has meant that in recent years, the plastics industry has had to take steps to eliminate hazardous elements from new products. "Consumers should be made more aware of the potential risks associated with small, mouthable and brightly coloured old plastic toys or components," he suggests, especially in the light of the current findings. Without that warning, the low cost, convenience and recyclability of previously used toys could "create a legacy of chemical contamination for younger children," he suggests.

Related Links

Environ Sci Tech 2018, online: "Concentrations and migratabilities of hazardous elements in second-hand children’s plastic toys"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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