Toy Story: Toxic Toy Recalls

The tale of how plastics and toxins are endangering children’s health

Do children intuitively know something that adults don’t when they opt to play with the benign wrapping paper or cardboard box instead of the plastic toy?

It seems the list of things to worry about with toys just keeps getting longer, even Santa would have trouble keeping track of it. Along with choking and strangulation hazards, excessively loud toys, magnetic toys and projectiles there’s now toxic chemicals in toys.

Toxic toy recalls

Toxic toy stories have certainly hit the media lately and it’s a timely reminder with the gift-giving season just around the corner to carefully consider the hidden toxic hazards in children’s toys.

Recently awarded Australian toy of the year, the ‘Bindeez’ range was recalled because it was found to contain the chemical 4-butanediol in its small beads. If the beads are ingested the chemical gets converted into a dangerous and illegal drug. Several children have already been hospitalised after swallowing them.

The world’s largest toy maker Mattel recalled millions of toys in the USA due to high levels of lead contamination in the paint. Apparently the company itself has protocols in place that don’t allow leaded paint, but Chinese manufacturers still used a lead containing paint.

It’s estimated that up to 400,000 of the same lead-contaminated toys made their way to Australia and Mattel is also voluntarily recalling these affected toys, including Barbie play sets and some Fisher Price toys (see below for further details).

The Commonwealth government responded by banning major retailers from selling imported toys with dangerous lead levels in their paint above the Australian standard limit of 90 parts per million leachable lead, but a loophole has been created leaving sole traders, markets and discount stores free to keep trading the toys.
Questions are also being asked about setting so-called ‘safe’ levels for lead, which is now widely regarded as toxic for children at any level of exposure.

Calls for mandatory toy testing

It makes you wonder how such potentially deadly constituents could escape the attention of regulators, manufacturers, importers and retailers. The recalls also serve to highlight the problems with Australia’s voluntary toy safety surveillance system.

According to Elizabeth O’Brien, President of The LEAD Group, ‘The Mattel recall ought to prompt large recalls from other companies, but that’s unlikely because companies in Australia are left to carry out their own lead testing in toys.’ O’Brien advises parents to demand lead analysis reports on toys from retailers and to lobby to have Australia’s laws changed so it becomes mandatory to carry out lead testing on toys.

There are also calls for a coordinated national approach to recalling and banning toys and chemicals to replace the cumbersome state-by-state approach that currently exists.

Trouble in toyland

According to the authors of the 2006 report ‘Trouble in Toyland: 21st Annual Toy Safety Survey’, some toys can pose hidden hazards and expose children to dangerous chemicals that are linked to serious health problems.

The report’s analysis of toxic chemicals in toys found that:

  • Some children’s jewellery may contain high levels of lead. Lead is used in pewter alloys and lower-grade tins and is also found in PVC components and in paint used on fake pearls.
  • Manufacturers are selling play cosmetic sets that include nail polish and some temporary tattoo sets containing toxic chemicals, such as toluene, xylene, dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, fragrance and benzene. Since children often put their hands in their mouths, nail polish offers a direct route of exposure to these toxic chemicals.

While there has been improvement, laboratory tests found that two out of ten ‘phthalate-free’ labelled plastic toys still actually contained detectable levels of phthalates.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Lead and cadmium

It is now widely accepted that there’s no ‘safe’ level of lead or cadmium for children to be exposed to. Lead and cadmium are undisputed poisons and cause toxic effects on nearly all organs and systems in the body, especially the nervous system.

Lead is highly toxic to the brains of young children and even a single high exposure to lead, such as swallowing a piece of leaded jewellery, can cause permanent neurological and behavioural damage, IQ deficits, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and even death.

Children’s exposure to lead can have long-term and measurable effects without necessarily causing any obvious acute symptoms. Exposure is also cumulative and children can absorb up to half of the lead they are exposed to and store it in their liver, brain, kidneys and bones.

Children are at far greater risk of exposure because of their hand-to-mouth behaviour. Lead and cadmium readily leach out when toys are licked, sucked or chewed on—all normal stuff for younger children, particularly those three and under.  

When PVC is exposed to sunlight, air and detergents the bond between the lead and plastics breaks down and forms a toxic dust, which is another significant source of exposure for children.


Phthalates are added to PVC plastic toys to make them flexible so they can stand up to rough treatment from little ones, but a mounting body of scientific evidence suggests that exposure to them and their metabolites may result in a range of disturbing health impacts.

Phthalates exposure has been linked to:

  • Interference with the natural functioning of the hormone system
  • Asthma and other respiratory problems, rhinitis and eczema in children
  • Reproductive and genital defects
  • Premature birth and early onset of puberty
  • Lower sperm counts
  • Risk factors for testicular cancer

Infants are exposed to phthalates from multiple sources including through the umbilical cord, breast milk, dust in the air and also from sucking on PVC plastic toys. US EPA studies show the cumulative impact of different phthalates leads to an exponential increase in associated harm.

A recent study (2007) concluded that epidemiological evidence indicates boys born to women exposed to phthalates during pregnancy have an increased incidence of congenital genital malformations and spermatogenic dysfunction, signs of a condition referred to as testicular dysgenesis syndrome.

According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), levels of phthalates found in humans are higher than levels shown to cause adverse health effects. The data also show phthalate levels are highest in children.

Ban on phthalates in toys

With mounting evidence of harm caused by phthalate exposures, the EU introduced temporary bans on phthalates in children’s toys as far back as 1999. The bans became permanent in 2005. Phthalates all have complicated chemical names but it’s important to get to grips with the key ones to avoid exposing your children to them.
The EU prohibits the use of three phthalate plasticisers in toys and child-care items:

Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP)
Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)
Benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP)

The EU restricts three plasticisers from toys and childcare items that children can put in their mouths:

Diisononyl phthalate (DINP)
Diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP)
Di-n-octyl phthalate (DNOP)

According to the European Commission, DEHP, DBP, and BBP are known to be reproductive toxicants, but the risks of the other three phthalates are uncertain. Nevertheless the EU considers a precautionary approach is still required.

California has also just signed into law a bill that prohibits the manufacture, sale and distribution of toys and child-care products used by children under the age of three that contain phthalates, which have been linked to cancer and reproductive defects. The bill comes into effect in 2009.

In Australia the industrial chemicals regulator, NICNAS, is currently conducting a hazard assessment of twenty-five individual phthalate chemicals, several of which are commonly found in PVC and toys. NICNAS has been accused by community groups of being a toothless tiger, however, because ultimately it has no powers to ban chemicals and no control over the importation of chemicals in products such as phthalates in toys.

Tips for toxic-free toy selection

  • Always choose age-specific toys because younger children have different behaviours in relation to toys such as sucking and chewing.
  • Beware of ‘cheap’ children’s jewellery and check whether parts are PVC, pewter alloys or lower-grade tins. Painted beads may also contain lead. Why not make your own creations with natural materials such as wood, hemp, crystals and shells?
  • Try plant-based natural make-up for children’s face painting and dress-ups. Vida Natural Make-Up by Livos is made from vegetable oils, beeswax, carnauba, mineral pigments and vitamin E. The kit comes with twelve great colours. Contact the supplier at Painted Earth
  • Read labels of children’s cosmetics carefully and avoid toxic chemicals in nail polish and other products such as perfumes, hair products and tattoos.
  • Avoid vinyl and PVC toys and children’s products such as bath toys, squeeze toys, dolls, lunch boxes and drink bottles especially for children from 0-6 years of age. Choose plastic-free toys such as certified organic fabric teethers and unpainted wooden toys.
  • Seek assurances and testing by the manufacturers, importers or retailers of painted or metal toys to avoid lead and other heavy metal contaminants.

See also Practical Values (part of same article on plastics)


• PVC Report: Response to the Australian Vinyl Council’ (2007) National Toxics Network
• ‘Toying With Toxics: An Investigation of Lead and Cadmium in Soft Toys in Three Cities in India’ (2006) Toxics Link
US federation of State Public Interest Research Groups, ‘Trouble in Toyland: 21st Annual Toy Safety Survey’ (2006)
• ‘Death of a Child After Ingestion of a Metallic Charm’ (2006) KK Berg, HF Hull, EW Zabel, PK Staley, DM Homa,
• ‘Phthalate ester toxicity in Leydig cells: Developmental timing and dosage considerations’ (2007) Ren-Shan Ge, Guo-Rong Chen, Cigdem Tanrikut and Matthew P. Hardy Reproductive Toxicology Volume 23 : 3, 366-37
• NICNAS Draft Phthalate Hazard Assessments and Hazard Compendium (2007)

• ‘EU Bans Three Phthalates From Toys, Restricts Three More’ Chemical and Engineering News July 11, 2005 Vol. 83 No.28
• ‘Target Will Reduce PVC Use’ The Wall Street Journal November 6, 2007
• ‘California OKs phthalates ban on children’s products’, Reuters, Mon Oct 15, 2007

Further information

• The LEAD Group Australia’s leading community organisation campaigning to have lead removed from products and petrol see or FREECALL 1800 626 086 Australia only.
• For a list of recalled products including toys see Product Recalls Australia
• For more information and images of the affected toys and advice on how to obtain refunds visit Mattel’s website: or FREECALL 1800 674 753

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.