Special Feature

VICTORIA T. VIZCARRA, Special Features Assistant Editor

Toying With Safety

Posted on August 17, 2011

IN TODAY’S race to find the next “it” toy, parents have to be more attentive than ever, lest their youngster’s next play date turn deadly.

“Children are more susceptible to being exposed [to] and harmed by toxic chemicals [...] because they explore their surroundings a lot,” Manny C. Calonzo, EcoWaste Coalition steering committee member said in an interview. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), youngsters are more susceptible to environmental toxins, as their increased rate of growth and metabolism makes them ingest more food, water, and air than adults.

“Depending on their age, [children] usually use their mouths as a means to get to know an object,” said Aina Arcilla-Lacson, the co-founder of Ecobloks, locally-made toys wrought from recycled excess mahogany. “The more colorful the toy, [the] more paint there is, and usually, more chemicals have been put in it to make it appealing to [...] young children. Toys should encourage creativity, imagination and playability.”

While little tots may have notoriously short attention spans, playability is the measure of how well a toy can be “handled” or played with for extended periods.

“Toys can last for some time and pose a health hazard for as long as they are accessible to children,” University of Cincinnati professor Scott Clark told EcoWaste. “As [they] age, they are more likely to have their paint become loose and thus be more available to kids.” Indeed, following the “toxic in, toxic out” theory, products rendered from harmful materials are bound to yield waste that’s likewise tainted with such substances. Among some poisonous additives that are cause for concern in toys today are metals such as antimony, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury.

Mr. Calonzo also warned against the dangers of organic pollutants such as brominated flame retardants, as well as endocrine disruptors such as bisphenol A and phthalates—the latter are often used as plastic softeners.

To protect consumers, there are some local regulations in place. The Department of Health’s (DOH) Administrative Order No. 32 lays down the law on labeling for toys in the country, imported or otherwise: Relevant information such as a duly registered name and trademark; the toy’s manufacturer or distributor; a model reference number; the place, country and year of manufacture; as well as other precautionary warnings must be displayed. Meanwhile, Senate Bill 1596, filed by Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, also has the potential to ban the sale of toys that contain phthalates to children below three years of age.

Ever-expanding technology has also given rise to new generation of gadgetry that can spot shady substances. One example is the X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer, a portable device that shoots beams which can screen for around 20 elements, providing results in under a minute. A recent investigation on these substances based on XRF analysis, conducted jointly by the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) and the EcoWaste Coalition, showed that 29% of the tested products contained high levels of at least one toxic metal. The study, helmed by Chicago-based IPEN senior science and technical adviser Dr. Joe DiGangi, also discovered that none of the tainted products bore the proper labels with which to warn potential buyers. In fact, certain products touting “non-toxic” labels were even discovered to be the opposite.

Note also that price alone may not guarantee quality: the results of the EcoWaste Coalition-IPEN study concluded that 71% of toys tested were toxin-free, but most were bought from the same places where tainted products were found—from the stalls of Divisoria to high-end outlets. Thus, for their part, parents can take a proactive stance: Mr. Calonzo advises them to steer clear of a particular toy if they spot red flags such as a strong chemical smell; the lack of the right label; the presence of any parts that can choke, wound, or entangle; or PVC plastic, as these probably contain dangerous additives like phthalates.

The Europe-based Safe Toys Coalition, of which the EcoWaste Coalition is a member, has a Safe Toy Guide for those Parents seeking safer materials: Rag dolls are a good alternative to the plastic ones. If one must go plastic, toys made of natural rubber are also a good buy. For children’s make-up and art materials, those with preservatives or fragrances are better off scrapped in favor of ones made of natural food or plant colorings. Of their recommendations, wooden toys get the thumbs-up, so long as these are sanded down and do not have too many glued-on parts. Unpainted and unvarnished solid wood can also make for risk-free playthings.

Furniture manufacturers are a great source for recycled scrap wood, saving forests from further balding. “[It’s] ideal because the wood used are normally kiln dried and also tougher,” shared Ms. Arcilla-Lacson in an interview. She also cited bamboo as good base material, as it is naturally abundant in the country. “Some kinds of wood also have different shades of color and grain, details that, when pointed out to children, make them more attentive to small details.”

The upsides to greening the toy box aren’t reserved for consumers alone, as Mr. Calonzo also pointed out, “For local manufacturers, shifting to ‘clean’ production would also mean gaining potential access to foreign markets with stringent standards.” While investing in the research and redesign may involve incremental costs, these can be recovered if producers are in it for the long haul. “In the case of removing lead in paint formulations, experts say that the economic and social costs of doing it are minimal.”