The Wrong Scary Toy Story

December 8, 2008 - 5:12 PM
One in three toys was found to have "significant levels of toxic chemicals, including lead, flame retardants and arsenic," according to a new report from the anti-chemical industry, but don't let the report's political agenda distract you from very real toy safety issues.
One in three toys was found to have “significant levels of toxic chemicals, including lead, flame retardants and arsenic,” according to a new report from the anti-chemical industry, but don’t let the report’s political agenda distract you from very real toy safety issues.

In what is pitched as its second annual “consumer guide to toxic chemicals in toys,” the Michigan-based Ecology Center reported that, among the 1,500 toys that it tested: 20 percent contained lead, with 3.5 percent exceeding the current recall threshold for lead-based paint; 2.9 percent contained bromine at levels greater than 1,000 parts per million (ppm), indicating the use of brominated flame-retardants; 18.9 percent contained detectable levels of arsenic, with 1.4 percent containing greater than 100 ppm; 2.4 percent contained detectable levels of cadmium; 4.2 percent contained detectable levels of mercury, with 1 percent containing levels greater than 100 ppm; and 27 percent of toys were made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.

All these chemicals and ppm-levels may sound scary, but what’s the reality?

First, it’s important to keep in mind that there are no reports of any children being harmed by toys containing brominated flame retardants, arsenic, cadmium, mercury or PVC. Brominated flame retardants, in fact, help keep children safe by slowing the burn rate in case of a fire.

That no documented harm has been caused by these chemicals in toys comes as little surprise since, as the basic principle of toxicology goes, “it is the dose that makes the poison.”
 
All substances even air, water, sugar and salt, are “toxic” at sufficiently high exposures. All of us come into contact with potentially toxic substances every day in our air, water, food, clothes, jewelry, and personal care products, for example, but not at levels that cause harm.
 
The Ecology Center made no effort to explore whether and to what extent children are actually exposed to the chemicals detected -- much less did it establish that any such exposure is harmful.

The Ecology Center aims to scare parents merely based on the mere detection of these chemicals in toys, which is nothing less than classic junk science. But what's more interesting – and revealing about the Ecology Center’s motives in fomenting the toy scare – is that it entirely missed warning parents about a very real and deadly threat posed by some of the toys it tested.

Of the top ten lead-containing toys, six were jewelry (necklaces, charm bracelets and a pin) containing from 0.2 percent to about 41 percent lead, according to the Ecology Center.
 
If you then go to the group’s web page to find out why you should be scared about lead in toys, you first, and foremost, get the old environmentalist myths about how there is no safe exposure to lead and that lead causes lower IQ scores and other development problems.
 
While the Ecology Center does mention some real health effects of lead poisoning, including muscle weakness, anemia, and kidney damage, it omitted the big one, death, and then fails to mention a real death that parents might find instructive.

In February 2006, a 4-year old Minnesota boy was taken to the hospital because of vomiting. He was diagnosed with gastroenteritis and released. Two days later, he returned and was admitted to the hospital. Ten hours later he was placed on a mechanical ventilator.
 
The next day, blood work revealed that the boy had an extraordinarily high blood lead level of 180 micrograms per deciliter, and studies indicated that his brain was receiving no blood flow. He was removed from life support and died.

An autopsy retrieved from his stomach a heart-shaped charmed imprinted with “Reebok.” His mother recognized the object as a charm that came with a pair of shoes belonging to another child whose home her son had visited, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 
She was not aware that her son had ingested it, since he had no history of ingesting non-food substances. When tested, the charm was found to consist of 99.1 percent lead. Reebok voluntarily recalled the charms shortly thereafter and instructed parents to “immediately take the charm bracelets away from children and dispose of the entire bracelet."

Did the Ecology Center spotlight this incident and its outcome on its lead information page? No -- even though its “most dangerous” lead-containing toy is a Disney-brand Hannah Montana necklace with heart-shaped charms that are 40 percent lead. Study leader Jeff Gearhart told me that he had heard of the Minnesota poisoning case but couldn't explain why mention of it was omitted.

Blinded by its anti-chemical agenda – Gearhart told me that he was glad to see that companies were responding to the unwelcome spotlight of his research by reformulating their toys – the Ecology Center apparently can’t see the true dangers in the forest because it’s focused on the politically incorrect “chemical” trees.
 
If a public interest group, which is what the Ecology Center holds itself out to be, is really concerned about toy safety, how about alerting parents to real and specific dangers – like swallowing small lead trinkets? But that’s not all.

In 2007, there were 232,900 toy-related injuries among all ages, including 18 toy-related deaths among children under age 15, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Riding toys, including non-motorized scooters, and small toy balls were associated with most of the deaths.
 
Most of the 232,900 injuries were lacerations, contusions and abrasions, most frequently to the face and head. Notably, there were no reports of injuries from chemicals in toys.

The Ecology Center seems to be worried about toy safety only to the extent that it helps the anti-chemical political agenda. But there are plenty of genuine toy safety concerns for consumers to consider. They ought not to be distracted from those realities by trumped-up, bogus scares.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com. He is a junk science expert, and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.