The danger in plastic toys

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Plastic has taken over most aspects of our lives, even ending up inside our systems through micro plastics we unknowingly ingest with food, but what about plastic in children?

In 2018 a study suggested that traces of a synthetic chemical called Bisphenol A (BPA) can be found in more than 80% of teenagers, while at the end of last year, another study revealed micro-plastic particles in the placentas of unborn babies.

Babies can come into contact with micro-plastics firstly through their mother during pregnancy, and then through the packaging that holds their food, the fabric of their clothes, and also the plastic in their toys.

When recycled plastic turns harmful 

We have often spoken about the 5 ‘R’s in sustainable living: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose and Recycle. Even though left as a last resort, we always encourage you to recycle when possible, but as far as toys are concerned, the recycling system may be letting us down, and parents need to be extremely aware of what they purchase.

A 2020 study in fact analyzing the effects of toxic chemicals in plastic children’s toys and found that toys made of black recycled plastics (which is often derived from recycled e-waste plastics with flame retardant chemicals) poses a serious threat to children’s health.

The study, carried out by a team of researchers from Arnika, BioDetection Systems, and International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), revealed that children mouthing toys made from this plastic are at risk of dangerous health effects from the toxic material. The results were so worrying, that the levels of toxic chemicals revealed in the samples, were comparable to levels found in hazardous wastes, such as for the example, those found in ash from waste incinerators.

These dire findings are not just concerning for children's health globally, but raise awareness to a dangerous flaw in the circular economy model which seeks to reduce plastic waste through increased plastic recycling. The problem in fact, originates because the current recycling systems are allowing for these toxic materials, such as plastics with flame retardant chemicals and dioxins, to be put into the recycling stream with other plastics which then go on to become toys that children will likely put in their mouth (please note that although this study focused on toys made of black recycled plastics, other color plastic can also be harmful).


What to look out for

Even though the long-lasting effects of plastic in children is not yet known, brominated dioxins are known to affect brain development, damage the immune system, increase the risk of cancer, and risk disruption of thyroid function. 

Harmful chemicals can not just be found in toys, but also in teething rings, plastic curtains, clear food packaging and personal care products.

How to avoid exposing your children

A 100% PVC-free label, or the numbers 1, 2, or 4 on plastic toys, is the best way to guarantee that the plastic doesn’t contain potentially dangerous chemicals. Other tips to keep in mind when looking for a safe toy to take home are: 

  • Swap plastic toys with toys made of wood (better still if the wood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, as it means it came from a sustainably managed forest) bamboo, organic fabrics (Conventional cotton is the most heavily sprayed crop in the world) or natural rubber.

  • Avoid buying cheap toys and inexpensive children’s jewelry, with no clear labels.

  • Read the labels and pay attention to the fine print of what you buy. If, for example, the label says that an item is flame resistant, chances are that some chemicals have been added to it. Also, if the label reads “wrinkle free” or ‘Water proof” find out how they achieve this. Avoid anything with lead, PVC, Phthalates, Bisphenols (BPA + BPS) and Formaldehyde.

  • If you do choose to buy something made of plastic, avoid leaving it in the sun for extended periods of time or having it be exposed to high heat. If you find your child placing a plastic toy in his/her mouth try to hand over a safer, less toxic option.

  • Invest in toys that are made in Countries that have higher standards in regulations such as the United States, Canada or the European Union. Nevertheless, remain aware that, in the US for example, even though toys are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), only basic federal standards that include sharp points or edges, small parts that children could swallow, and lead in paint are enforced. This means that although certain regulations are in place, toys are not tested for safety before they are put on store shelves for sale, and it is still up to parents to determine if a toy is ultimately safe for their child.


If you have are trying to live more sustainably and cut out waste from your life while taking care of a baby, you might also be interested in Diapers: Disposable or cloth? or ways to cut down on plastic in your kitchen.

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