Significant amounts of Toxic Chemicals found in Second-Hand Plastic Toys

A team of UK scientists checked around 200 second-hand toys for toxic chemicals, including lead, cadmium and bromine. They found that certain colours of plastic toys could contain high levels of hazardous elements. They also chose to simulate what might happen to the chemicals in the toys if they were to be chewed. Their findings were published as an open access article in Environmental Science & Technology. The scientists were from the University of Plymouth.

Toxic Chemicals found in significant amounts in Second-Hand Plastic Toys

Second-Hand Plastic Toys.

Previous studies have revealed that some older toys can contain high levels of lead, and some studies have suggested that plastics may be at risk, but this was the first study to examine for restricted chemicals. Previous studies by the same author found that decorated drinking glasses could contain unsafe levels of lead and cadmium, while paint used for playgrounds could contain dangerous amounts of lead, cadmium, chromium and antimony. 

The scientists suggested that although parents were wary of old toys if they had paint flaking off, old plastic toys generally seemed to be more durable and because they looked fine, were considered safe. Plastics do not biodegrade, so older toys looked in good condition, but the team wanted to check what was happening underneath the surface. There is an EU Toy Safety Directive which applies to new products, but no such guidance for older toys. There is a flourishing second-hand market for old toys in the UK, and many primary schools and nurseries are furnished with donated second-hand toys. They can also be found in doctors’ waiting rooms and are often handed down through generations.

The scientists acquired about 200 second-hand plastic toys from two preschool nurseries, a primary school, charity shops and 5 family homes in Plymouth. The toys chosen for the study were constructed mostly of synthetic moulded plastic, did not contain foam, rubber or textiles, and did not include products that had been painted or had electrical parts. The toys were a good mix of balls, yo-yos, marbles, Lego bricks, vehicles, dinosaurs, dolls and characters, board games and puzzles, numeracy toys, jewellery, musical instruments and bath toys. 

The scientists subjected the toys to XRF analysis (handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometer)which looked for the presence of 8 metals and metalloids, which were defined in the original Toy Safety Directive, and which are considered the most hazardous for children. They also looked for chloride and bromine, which are indicators of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and bromide which is an indicator of Bromide Flame Retardants (BRFs). The scientists measured the sample thickness of the toys and also tested their reaction to hydrochloric acid, which simulated the effect of the toys in the stomach, if they had been chewed. The elements tested for, included: arsenic (As), barium (Ba), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), mercury (Hg), lead (Pb), antimony (Sb), selenium (Se) and bromide (Br).

The scientists used the results of the XRF to decide which toys to subject to hydrochloric solution, in order to examine how the chemicals behaved when subjected to similar conditions to being chewed. Hazardous elements were frequently found among plastic figures, construction toys, games and puzzles. They were least found in activity products, cars, trains and toys that had been designed for use in water. Higher than recommended concentrations of hazardous elements listed by the original EU/EEC Toy Safety Directive were found in second-hand toys. The amount of elements found were comparable to cheap toys found in value shops, but were higher than the values found in new plastic toys bought from major retailers.

Some of the elements found could be linked to the colour of the toy. Bright yellow or red contained high levels of lead and chromium. Lego bricks from the 1970s showed high concentrations of cadmium while those bought in the 1990s, were visually very similar, but much safer. Old sets of Lego are therefore recommended to be treated with caution. Measuring the ability of the element to migrate when subjected to conditions similar to stomach acid, rather than just measuring the amount present in a toy, brought different and concerning results. Some brightly coloured toys showed high levels of lead and cadmium when subjected to this test. 

The scientists were particularly concerned at finding high levels of bromide, which indicates BRFs, used to increase resistance to fire and slow down ignition. These chemicals are toxic and the use in new and recycled electrical products is restricted by EU directive from 2002. The scientists found levels of Bromide Flame Retardants that were below that required to reduce ignition, but suggested that many children’s toys may have been manufactured, either directly or indirectly from recycled waste electrical casings, where these chemicals are used. This can also be the case in new products, including toys. BFRs were banned 15 years ago, and subject to more stringent regulation, but may remain in the second-hand toys that young children are playing with.

There has been a steady decline in recalls by manufacturers due to hazardous elements being present in new toys, but the practice of passing down second-hand toys may mean that these young children are still being exposed to them. The scientists recommended that consumers should be made aware of the potential risk which they have associated with small, mouth able and particularly red, black and yellow, old plastic toys or parts. They also suggest that BFRs may be found in neutral-coloured second-hand toys and that there needs to be further study into the recycling of plastic waste.

Turner, A., Concentrations and Migratabilities of Hazardous Elements in Second-Hand Children’s Plastic Toys, Environmental Science & Technology, 2018, 52, 3110-3116

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