Study: Second hand toys pose risks to childrens' health

Plastic cows lined up at a yard sale
CC BY-SA 2.0 Valerie Everett

Over time, laws keeping toys safe for our children have evolved.

That means, in theory, toys you find at the thrift shop, yard sale or second hand store may harbor toxins that would not be legal in toys being sold new today. Now we have a study that proves this risk is more than theoretical.

Dr. Andrew Turner, of the University of Plymouth, led a study analyzing 200 used plastic toys that were gathered from "homes, nurseries, and charity shops." The collection included "cars, trains, construction products, figures and puzzles, with all of them being of a size that could be chewed by young children."

Some of the toys tested in Dr. Turner's lab

The toys were tested for the heavy metals arsenic (As), barium (Ba), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), mercury (Hg), lead (Pb), antimony (Sb), and selenium (Se). The lab also evaluated bromine (Br) content, as an indicator of the presence of flame retardant chemicals.

With the exceptions of arsenic, mercury and selenium, each of the toxins was found in over 20 different toys with bromine, cadmium and lead posing the greatest exposure risks. In addition to testing for the presence of these metals and flame retardants, the lab evaluated the likelihood that a child who chewed off of these toys would end up with the toxins in their body: a property known as "migration." This test exposes the toys to acids that mimic stomach juices to see if the toxic chemicals migrate out of the toys (where they can then enter the child's bloodstream and accumulate in the body).

Even respectable toy companies were not exempt from the findings of hazard: cadmium released from yellow and red LEGO® bricks exceeded limits now required under the European Toy Safety Directive, introduced in 2009.

How to reduce the risk and still reuse toys

There are steps you can take to reduce the risks for your kids and still teach them to value second hand items:
  • Look for toys that were advertised as exceeding the standards when they were sold new -- especially brands recognized as eco-toys or higher-end products which you can now afford at their second hand prices.
  • Select toys that were made from natural materials, avoiding the hazards of older plastics.
  • Keep high risk toys, like older lego sets, out of the reach of younger children likely to put the toys in their mouths; the older kids can still have fun with these.
If you live outside of the EU, extra caution should be exercised: toys sold as new may still hide toxins at levels that would be illegal under the more "precautionary" approach applied in Europe.

The full study was published in Environmental Science and Technology: Concentrations and migratabilities of hazardous elements in second-hand children’s plastic toys.

Study: Second hand toys pose risks to childrens' health
"Reuse" is usually a good motto; this study reminds parents to take care in the case of toys originally sold in yesteryears. We offer some tips for selecting safer used toys.

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