Nightmare at Christmas – how officials are battling a flood of toxic Chinese toys

Government officials are trying to hold back a ‘flood’ of dangerously contaminated Chinese toys to keep children safe this Christmas.

Inspectors have blocked 248 models of toy from sale this year after meticulous tests revealed illegal levels of toxic chemicals. Of these, 228 (92%) were categorised as “serious risk”; 219 (88%) came from China; and 127 (51%) were contaminated with phthalates, a plastic additive.

One product contained 43% phthalate by weight – a halloween mask found in Germany. Two seriously contaminated toys found in Poland were plastic medical play sets, another was a toy chemistry set found in France.

Seriously contaminated toys include medical and chemistry play sets, some stamped with the CE safety stamp, supposedly guaranteeing compliance with EU laws.

Around half the contaminated toys were plastic (121), 73 were dolls, 62 were slime contaminated with boron, 27 were soft or squeezable toys. After chemical risk, toys were blocked because of risk of choking (192) and “environment” (51). Toys were the single most problematic good blocked (542), followed by motor vehicles (462) and electrical appliances (162), though inspections are usually not random. The findings come from the EU Rapex system, which alerts officials across Europe about dangerous consumer goods.

Customs officers from four EU border countries checked 2.26 million Chinese plastic toys, blocked 722,598 from entering Europe after discovering illegal levels of phthalates and destroyed 31,590, according to a single joint enforcement project presentation last winter. Of the contaminated toys, 92% carried the manufacturer’s CE safety mark. 21 Rapex alerts were created as a result.

Officials in some countries have faced severe budget cuts following the 2007 financial crisis. A CHEM Trust survey of UK enforcement authorities found that enforcement teams had been cut by half.

Large-scale screening for chemical pollution has found that four phthalates pose a risk to children in 13 out of 15 EU countries. All children were found to be contaminated with phthalates, on average twice as much as their mothers. Sometimes contamination was much higher, up to 12 times more than their mothers, perhaps because they are lower to the floor and toxic household dust. Possible health impacts include reproductive disorders, delayed puberty and numerous behavioural disorders. The European Chemicals Agency concluded that the situation is not adequately controlled.

The EU Toy Safety Directive rules out production involving many harmful chemicals, but neglects others. Restricted substances are also sometimes found in toys because recyclers can legally trade in plastic containing higher concentrations than virgin material. There is evidence that some recyclers also sell plastic for toys containing banned substances. Some manufacturers break the law by selling toys with legal substances at illegal concentrations. Industry must supply safety data for most chemicals before they are used, while all plastics are exempted from this legal requirement. Manufacturers are not required to label toy ingredients, but a Danish initiative is trialing this.

NGOs today launched a public awareness campaign to highlight toxic toys and the need for labelling.

NGOs today launched a video to highlight the problem of toxic chemicals in toys.

European Environmental Bureau chemical policy manager Tatiana Santos said:

“Toxic toys are clearly a major problem for officials. The numbers are appalling; this is a flood. Where inspectors get the resources they need, they do a great job. But we wonder how many go undetected.

“Whether legal or not, toxic chemicals have no place in toys. Children are particularly vulnerable, yet scientists are reporting worrying levels of synthetic substances in the population. The toy industry must wake up to its duty of care and detox quickly. Clearly, importers of Chinese goods have to do a much better job of pressuring their suppliers. Yet some harmful chemicals are still legal in toys. So we need tougher laws too. 

“The most problematic toys are those made of plastic. Yet plastics get away with very light touch regulation in Europe. It’s a particular problem in recycled plastic, where we still see chemicals that were banned years ago turning up in new toys. The EU should get tough; ban all toxic chemicals and close the loopholes. Until then, any toys allowed into toy shops should carry a label with the chemical ingredients and warning signs if needed, like those that exist for bleach or similar products. This way, parents could see what chemicals are in the toys they buy for their children and make informed choices.”

Chemical pollution is linked to rising health, fertility, developmental and environmental problems, including the collapse in insect, bird and aquatic mammal populations. Two thirds of Europeans worry about daily chemical exposure. 

Earlier this month, NGOs warned that EU chemical safety laws are failing and should be improved.

Photo by yanlev