Lethal games

Toys can be dangerous. Laboratory analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment shows the presence of phthalates, a highly toxic chemical, in toys sold in the Indian market. Worse, and almost predictable now, the Indian government does not regulate or monitor the use of these inimical chemicals, putting children at risk

by CSE team

They lurk inside plastics, and from there migrate to air, food, human body and even unborn babies. Phthalates or phthalate esters 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. They also reach babies through breastfeeding. Animal studies have shown phthalates cross the placenta barrier. Children under three years are more likely to be exposed to phthalates because they tend to chew and suck on plastic toys. Since their metabolic, endocrine and reproductive systems are immature, they are more vulnerable.

Phthalates are produced by removing water molecules 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. Studies show DINP is also harmful. The EU and the US strictly regulate the use of phthalates in toys but in India there are no checks on their use.

Delhi NGO Centre for Science and Environment tested 24 toy samples of major brands for the presence of phthalates. In October 2008, it randomly purchased toy samples from markets in Delhi. Fifteen were soft toys and nine hard toys made in four countries. Tests showed all samples contained one or more phthalates— DEHP, DINP, DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate) and BBP (benzyl butyl phthalate), all harmful—in varying concentrations.

Eleven samples (46 per cent) had phthalates exceeding the EU limit of 0.1 per cent by mass of plasticized material. The threshold limit cannot be set lower than 0.1 per cent as phthalates can be found below this level as contaminants in the manufacturing process even if not used as plasticizers. DINP was detected in nearly 42 per cent of the samples. In 29 per cent of the samples it exceeded the EU limit. The highest concentration of DINP, which is restricted in the US and EU in toys that can be put in the mouth, was found in the squeaky toys made by Indian company Funskool India. At 16 per cent concentration it was 162 times the EU limit.  DEHP was detected in 96 per cent of the toys but in concentrations below the EU limit, except in a teether and two toys: inflatable bop bag dinosaur (0.2 per cent, twice the EU limit) and bath duck (2.6 per cent). The baby teether ostensibly made of non-toxic, food-grade silicone rubber had DEHP at a concentration three times the EU limit. It was made by a company in Taiwan. DBP was found in soft and hard biters at levels two times the EU limit.

The majority of the toys, which contained high levels of phthalates, were made in China. Six squeeze toys from China contained phthalates two to 80 times above the EU limit. Four of these were made by Lovely Collection, which did not even bother to mention the address of the manufacturer and the date of manufacture on the package.

Phthalates have pervaded the toy market without raising much alarm. China that has cornered 70 per cent of the global toy market does not regulate their use. International standards dealing with toy safety ignore them. While EU took the lead in imposing limits for phthalates in toys, the US has only recently passed the law regulating phthalates.

EU was the first to regulate the use of phthalates in toys. In 1999, it temporarily banned six phthalates used in childcare articles and toys made of soft PVC that can be put in the mouth by children under three.

In 2005, it decided to restrict the use of three phthalates— DEHP, DBP and BBP— in all childcare articles and toys to 0.1 per cent concentrations by mass of the plasticized material. Toys containing these chemicals in higher quantities cannot be sold in EU countries.

The EU proposed the same limit for three more phthalates— DINP, DIDP and DNOP( di-n-octyl phthalate) —but only in toys and childcare articles meant to be put in the mouth by children. Other toys were exempted from this restriction for want of more evidence of the toxicity of the three phthalates. The EU, however, noted that the three pose a potential risk if used in toys.

The restrictions came into force from January 16, 2007 and shall be reviewed by January 16, 2010.

EU regulations say products using phthalates do not have to mention their presence or carry a warning on the packaging. Only containers with more than 0.5 per cent of DBP, BBP and DEHP have to be labelled with the skull and crossbones symbol for the purpose of handling, according to the Phthalates Information Centre Europe, an industry body.

In US, the Congress enacted the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) in August 2008, prescribing restrictions broadly similar to those in the EU on toys and childcare articles sold in US markets. The ban on DINP, DIDP and DNOP is interim.

The Act stipulates two types of restrictions on phthalates. The first part of the regulation, which came into force last February, permanently bans manufacturing for sale, distribution and importing of children’s toys and childcare articles containing more than 0. 1 per cent of either DEHP, DBP or BBP.

The second part of the regulation seeks an interim ban on DINP, DIDP and DNOP (above 0.1 per cent) from being used in childcare articles or toys that can be placed in a child’s mouth. The threshold levels are prescribed only for individual chemicals; no composite threshold is prescribed for more than one phthalate present in toys. The Act does not mandate labelling toys to indicate compliance with phthalate standards.

A seven-member Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel of scientists established under CPSIA will look at health effects of the full range of phthalates, individually and in combination, used in children’s products.

The panel has 18 months to complete its study. After this the Consumer Product Safety Commission, tasked with implementing the Act, will evaluate the findings and consider banning products containing phthalates as hazardous.

The commission has devised detailed testing methods to identify the presence of phthalates. But with lack of accredited third party laboratories, the commission has stayed general certification. So the law is yet to be implemented effectively.

The Bureau of Indian Standards (bis) has issued three sets of standards covering safety aspects of toys but none covers phthalates. These standards deal with safety aspects related to mechanical and physical properties and flammability and specify the maximum acceptable levels for eight metals in toys.

Even these standards are voluntary in nature. The bureau is revising these standards to align them with the international ISO standards, a bis official said. The process began in June 2008 but has taken a backseat. The agency is drafting standards covering the use of phthalates in toys.

According to the Toy Industry Association, China follows international standards dealing with safety aspects of toys related to mechanical and physical properties. Phthalates are not covered under these standards.

India faces a challenge: how to keep alive its only measure ensuring safety of imported toys. Its ban on import of toys not meeting specified safety standards lapses on January 23. Since Indian toy makers are not required to adhere to any mandatory safety standards it will be discriminatory to impose them on others; it would be a non-tariff trade barrier. One way is to put in place mandatory standards for domestic manufacturers but that is yet to be done.

It goes to show how serious the government is about toxicity in toys.

The ban was imposed last year and at the time applied only to China. Soon it realized it cannot continue with the ban. In March it announced import of Chinese toys which conformed to international or Indian standards would be permitted.

Conforming means the toy importer has to ensure two things. One, it has to produce a third party certificate that imported toys meet standards prescribed by ASTM International under the Standard Consumer Specification for Toy Safety meant to prevent injuries from choking, sharp edges and other potential hazards, including those from chemicals like lead. ASTM International is one of the world’s largest voluntary standards development organizations and has members from over 100 countries. Else, the importer can show the toys conform to the safety standards prescribed by India or the International Organization for Standardization. All three standards are similar, but they do not cover phthalates.

Two, the manufacturer should have a certificate stating that a representative sample of the toys being imported has been tested by an independent laboratory accredited to the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC)-Mutual Recognition Arrangement and found to meet the required specifications. ILAC is a network of laboratory and inspection accreditation bodies formed to remove technical barriers to trade. It has 66 members, including India’s National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories.

But Indian customs officials only check whether importers have the required document. There is no regular testing done by the Indian authorities to confirm whether the imported toys meet the specified standard or not.

Following threats from China that it will challenge the import restrictions at WTO, India expanded the restrictions in June to cover toy imports from all countries. It also extended the restrictions till January 23, 2010.

A source in the commerce department admitted the import requirements are discriminatory and the department is likely to withdraw them if China mounts more pressure. “We are biding time hoping the government would mandate standards for the domestic industry as well,” he said.

The commerce department is looking to the department of industrial policy and promotion (DIPP), the nodal department for toys, to issue a quality control order making toy safety standards mandatory. Once that happens both domestic and foreign manufacturers would be have to adhere to them.

Even if the quality control order was formulated it would not have covered standards for phthalates because the Bureau of Indian Standards (bis) is not ready with them. Officials at bis say the standards are not a priority for the agency because it is preoccupied with other tasks.

In response to a Bombay High Court order to file a report detailing interim measures taken to curb imports of toxic Chinese toys, the government has asked three organizations—All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, National Institute of Occupational Health in Ahmedabad and National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad—to establish the presence of heavy metals, phthalates and their leaching in toys in the Indian market, said sources.

The study is likely to be completed in 8-10 months, said a scientist involved in the study.

Indian toymakers are ready to adhere to standards for phthalates, Rajesh Arora, general secretary of the Toy Association of India, claimed. Arora argued the Indian toy industry, which clocked 20 per cent growth in exports in 2008-09, is already meeting Western standards for phthalates. Only for export products.
CSE/Down To Earth Feature Service
1,892 words