In 2001, a toy scandal emerged out of China. Thousands of toys were recalled due to them containing high levels of lead and other toxic heavy metals. These toys were sold by reputable big-name brands online and in brick-and-mortar stores. After the Chinese manufacturers promised to employ stricter regulatory controls, another scandal emerged in 2013 in which a toxic agent was found that could harm the kidneys and livers of developing children.

The two main toxins that were being found in the toys were lead and phthalates (in plastic). The response from the U.S. Government was swift. In 2008, they banned 3 different types of phthalates from being used in children’s toys, but that still wasn’t enough. In 2017, 5 more phthalates were banned, and several watchdog groups released a statement that claimed there are other potentially dangerous chemicals being used in children’s toys that aren’t banned.

What’s a concerned parent to do besides monitor the news like a hawk for any recalls?

Most of these chemicals require a degree in chemistry to understand whether or not they’re safe. We’ve put together a little guide that explains the things you should watch out for when purchasing toys for your children. When in doubt, you should err on the side of caution.

Lead

Lead has long been used in paints to help increase durability, accelerate drying and resist moisture which leads to corrosion. The problem with lead is that even the tiniest bit can have devastating negative effects upon the nervous system, brain, and overall development of children. Since children often put toys in their mouth, lead is the #1 concern amongst children’s toy consumer safety groups.
While most toys made in America no longer contain lead, there is a good chance that toys imported from other countries such as China, Vietnam, and India could contain lead (or worse) as their quality control standards and regulations aren’t as good as those in the U.S.

The good news is that most reputable toy stores employ strict quality-control standards and have completely gotten rid of products that do or could potentially contain lead. Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act which bans lead and other unsafe products from children’s toys.

Chinese-made plastic toys

As tempting as it is to buy an inexpensive plastic toy you see at a swap meet or 2nd hand store, there’s a strong chance that it could contain lead or other harmful chemicals such as phthalates. Just because Congress has banned certain chemicals from being used in the manufacture of children’s toys, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re still not being manufactured, imported, and sold in stores. When in doubt, look for the “Made in USA” label. If there is a “Made in China” label on the toy, it’s best to not buy it. Better safe than sorry.

BPC (Bisphenol A)

This chemical can cause extreme developmental defects in infants and children and has been linked to attention deficit disorder, early onset of puberty and even cancer-cell growth. It’s usually found in sippy cups and plastic toys – and since infants and children tend to put their toys in their mouths for extended periods of time – there’s a good chance that they can get a potentially dangerous dose of the chemicals after just a few usages. Look for labels that proclaim the product is “BPA-free.” Another way to determine if it contains BPA is to look for the number “7” on the bottom or sides of the product. The “7” is a manufacturing code that indicates it contains BPA.

Cotton

Believe it or not, conventional cotton is heavily sprayed with pesticides and other harmful chemicals. It’s not something you would want your children to put in their mouths. Many stuffed animals and other “plush” toys contain copious amounts of cotton.

Instead, look for products that contain organic cotton or hemp material. These products have not been sprayed with chemicals and they can be safely used and played with by children. They tend to cost a little more money than products made out of conventional cotton, but the peace of mind and the health of your little ones are well worth it.

PVC (polyvinyl chloride)

Just a few short decades ago, PVC was ubiquitous in almost everything that was made out of plastic. PVC is still widely used in this day and age and has been linked to asthma, reproductive problems, and allergies. It contains known carcinogens such as phthalates, dioxin, and vinyl chloride.

Fortunately, products that contain PVC are pretty easy to identify: If it is PVC-free, it will usually say so. Most children’s toys that are PVC-free are labeled as such. If you pick up the toy and see the number “3” printed or stamped anywhere on it, that means it contains PVC.

How to Make Sure the Toy is Safe?

With so many online retailers popping up and new toys coming on the market on an almost weekly basis, it’s best to look for toys that specifically state they do not contain harmful chemicals. Labels that proclaim the toy is “100% PVC-free” or plastic toys that are stamped with the numbers “1, 2, or 4” should be safe to play with.

Wooden or bamboo toys usually don’t contain harmful chemicals (but watch out for pressboard or plywood). Alternatively, you could make it a point to only shop at reputable websites that sell 100% certified safe/green toys for children. The owners of these types of websites are well-aware of the dangers of certain toys and go out of their way to source and sell only toys that are 100% safe for children.

Most importantly, watch your children when they play with their toys. If you have any suspicions on the safety of a toy, it’s probably best to throw it away as you never know what’s contained in plastics nowadays.