Plastic toys in India 'can damage children's health'

Posted: 20 January 2010

Plastic toys being sold in India can seriously jeopardise the health of children playing with them, as they may contain an extremely toxic chemical, says a recent study.

The study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), carried out at its Pollution Monitoring Laboratory in Delhi, found high levels of phthalates (pronounced tha-lates), a chemical used to soften plastic, in all samples of toys it tested. Over 45 per cent of the samples exceeded the internationally accepted safe limit for phthalates.

India has no regulations to control or monitor the use of these toxins, says Chandra Bhushan, associate director, CSE: "What India has is a set of voluntary standards covering safety aspects of toys. The government has banned the import of toys not meeting these standards, but what will happen when this ban ends on January 23 this year?"

Organic chemicals

Phthalate teething ring
Phthalate teething ring
Phthalate teething ring.
Phthalates are organic chemicals commonly used as plasticizers to make plastic supple. They are responsible for plastic products being cheap, easy to clean - and toxic.

Phthalates can damage the male reproductive system, impair the lungs and affect the duration of pregnancy. Laboratory tests on mammals indicate phthalates can trigger asthma and allergies, and lead to poor semen quality, genital defects, premature breast development and skeletal defects. Children under three years are more likely to be exposed to phthalates because they tend to chew and suck on plastic toys - and since their metabolic, endocrine and reproductive systems are immature, they are more vulnerable as well.

Phthalates are produced from petrochemicals. They look like clear vegetable oil and are odourless. Till recently, di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) dominated the use of plasticizers in toys. After scientific studies showed DEHP as toxic, di-isononyl phthalate (DINP) has become the most commonly used plasticizer. But studies show that DINP is also harmful.

Toy samples

The CSE lab tested 24 toy samples - all randomly bought from markets and toyshops in Delhi - for the presence of phthalates. Fifteen were soft toys and nine hard toys. The samples were found to have been manufactured in four countries: India, China, Taiwan and Thailand. The tests showed:

All the samples contained one or more phthalates - DEHP, DINP, DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate) and BBP (benzyl butyl phthalate), all harmful. And 46 per cent of the samples had phthalates exceeding the EU limit of 0.1 per cent by mass of plasticized material.

Of the sampled toys that children generally put in their mouths (such as teethers), 29 per cent exceeded the phthalate limit.

Of the 24 samples picked randomly, 14 were found to be from China and 2 from Taiwan - 57 per cent of the China-made toys and 100 per cent of the Taiwan-made toys crossed the safe limit.

Indian manufacturers accounted for 7 samples: 14 per cent of these were above the phthalate limit.

The study also proved that claims of 'non-toxic' which some toy labels carry are false and fraudulent, says CSE. "For example, a soft toy manufactured by Funskool India Limited, that claimed to be safe for children aged 3-18 months, had phthalate content 162 times above the safe limit."

European leadership

The EU has been the first to regulate the use of these chemicals in toys. It has restricted the use of some phthalates in all childcare articles and toys to 0.1 per cent concentration by mass of the plasticized material. Toys containing these chemicals in higher quantities cannot be sold in EU countries. In 2008, the US Congress enacted the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, prescribing restrictions broadly similar to those in the EU on toys and childcare articles sold in US markets.

However, neither India nor China has any regulations to control or monitor the use of phthalates in toys. According to China's Toy Industry Association, the country follows international standards dealing with safety aspects of toys related to mechanical and physical properties. Phthalates are not covered under these standards.

In India, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has issued three sets of standards covering safety aspects of toys, but none covers phthalates - and even these standards are voluntary in nature. Strangely, while Indian toymakers are not required to adhere to any mandatory safety standards, the country had banned the import of toys not meeting the standards.

Since January 2009, under pressure from a vigilant judiciary, Indian authorities tried to regulate the safety aspects of imported toys. First, they banned the import of toys from China. Then they issued a notification asking all Chinese imports to conform to Indian standards, and then broadened this notification to cover imports from all countries. But the government is on a sticky ground says CSE. While making it mandatory for imports to conform to standards, it does not ask its own industries to meet the same standards. This is clearly a non-tariff barrier to trade.

This ban lapses next week, on January 23, 2010. Says Kushal Pal Singh Yadav, head of CSE's toxins team, "After the deadline, the government would have two options - either regulate all toys, or leave the entire market unregulated. It appears India is not serious about setting toxicity standards for toys. The government does not want to make the effort to make standards mandatory for all."

Source: CSE. 15 Janaury, 2010