CSE LAB STUDY: TOXIC TOYS
Worse, and almost predictable now, the Indian government does not regulate or monitor the use of these inimical chemicals, putting children at risk.
While phthalates are nowhere on the radar of Indian authorities, they have made a few botched attempts to regulate other safety aspects of toys like mechanical and chemical properties and presence of certain heavy metals. Domestically, these standards remain voluntary. But since January last year, the authorities, mostly under pressure from a vigilant judiciary, have tried to regulate the quality of toys being imported. First they banned the import of toys from China, one country notorious for the poor quality of its toys.
Then they issued notification asking for 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 wicket here. While making it mandatory for imports to conform to standards, it does not ask of its own industry to meet the same. This is clearly a non-tariff barrier to trade, and officials know it. They have been fortunate no one has complained till now.
The regulation on imports expires on January 23. The government has two options. Either regulate all toys, both domestic production and imports. Second, and the easier option, let the order expire and leave the entire market unregulated. As things stand now, the government does not want to make the effort to make standards mandatory for all.
Eighteen-month-old Ishleen gets a toy almost every week. Whenever her parents visit markets in west Delhi they pick up something for her. Ishleen has a collection of squeezies, soft toys and rattles. “She began teething a year ago. So she chews on just about anything,” said her mother Manjeet Singh.
Her husband Jaspal Singh inspects the toys before buying them but she agreed they did not give much thought to health effects. Chances are when Ishleen chews on these toys she ingests tiny doses of chemicals. One of them is phthalates that makes plastics flexible but can interfere with the reproductive system.
Romila Bahl, mother of two children now adult, knows toys can be toxic. "I'm not a scientist but as a mother I knew what was good for my children, especially knowing it may go into their mouth," said Bahl, who runs a flower business in Delhi. "I always asked my eldest sister in Chicago to bring toys for my children," she said.Her children, Omar and Mandira, would eagerly look forward to their aunt's annual visit.
"I didn't mind shelling out an extra buck because I never trusted the cheap imports." But she has not heard of phthalates, which were not banned in the US when she used to get toys from Chicago some 15 years ago.
Aparna Pandey, a kindergarten teacher in Delhi, gave birth to a girl three months ago. Although her child responds to the rattles Pandey bought from a crafts bazaar, she is too young to hold on to them. But once she begins to, Pandey is clear what kind of toys she will buy. “I love India’s toymaking traditions,” she said. “Luckily, you can still find them in Delhi. I would only buy those using natural vegetable dyes, meeting food grade standards.” Parents often give in to their child’s demand for flashy plastic toys.
Pandey, still on maternity leave, said she always warned parents about the potential health hazards of playthings for their children.
When Shoom Gupta, 63, walked into the oldest toy shop in Delhi he was overcome with nostalgia. He had last visited the store, Ram Chander & Sons, in Connaught Place, 35 years ago before moving to Copenhagen. Growing up in India during the 1950s he played with toys made of terracotta, wood and clay. “I used to buy slingshot model planes made of balsa wood,” he recollected.
The Danish toy company Lego, he said, began by making toys from leftover wood when he was still working as a carpenter. But Lego no longer uses wood. With the introduction of plastic softeners and moulding agents, plastic became the medium of choice. Then came the Chinese manufacturing revolution. Gupta’s two daughters Maya and Carolina grew up playing with Lego toys. The name comes from the first two letters of the Danish words leje godt , meaning ‘play well’.
“Till the time the manufacturing unit was in Denmark, I was not really worried when children put the plastic pieces in the mouth,” Gupta said. But with manufacturing moving to China and lack of quality control standards, he is no more sure of toys’ safety.
Shop owner Satish Chander agreed. “Quality standards in the US and EU differ from those in Latin America and South Asia
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.
The EU is now considering evidence that shows phthalates acting together harm health in ways each by itself would not.
Denmark has gone a step ahead and placed a ban on the sale and import of toys and childcare articles meant to be put in the mouth that contain phthalates, not covered by EU regulations, at levels exceeding 0.05 per cent. To ensure that toys available in the country are phthalate-free, the Danish government has also negotiated an agreement with retailers to voluntarily refrain from selling phthalate-containing toys (like musical instruments) meant to be put in the mouth by children between three and six years.
Denmark taxes pvc —plastic used in toys—and phthalate-containing products, domestic and imported.
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.
The EU also has a rapid alert system for non-food consumer products, under which member nations can access information about steps being taken by other member states and economic operators with regard to products posing a serious, long-term risk to health and safety of consumers.
The US 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.
A toy is a product meant for a child of up to 12 years, while a childcare article refers to a product that a child of three years or younger uses for feeding, sleeping, sucking and teething.
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. By definition a toy or part of a toy can be placed in a child’s mouth if in one dimension it is smaller than five centimetres. Toys that can only be licked are not covered under the regulation. 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. Under these methods the manufacturer is required to provide a certificate testifying its products have been tested for compliance with the commission’s guidelines. Since September 2009 the testing is specified to be done by an accredited third party laboratory. But the commission has stayed general certification until a panel of accredited labs is established. 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 (see table: Indian standards for 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. Following worldwide concerns over the toxicity in Chinese toys, the directorate general of foreign trade under the department of commerce banned import of Chinese toys in January 2009 for six months, including wheeled toys and dolls. 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.
Indian customs officials only check whether importers have the required document, said a customs official requesting not to be named. 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.
The court route
In 2007, Consumer Welfare Association, a non-profit in Mumbai, had filed a public-interest petition in the Bombay High Court, seeking a ban on the import of toys made in China on the ground that they are toxic. “Our main idea was to wake up the government,” said A M Mascarenhas, secretary to the association.
The court has directed the government to file a report detailing interim measures taken to curb imports of toxic Chinese toys, informed Rajiv Chavan, the counsel for the ngo. At the last hearing on December 2, 2009, the court asked the government to submit a report on toxicity of toys.
The government has, in turn, 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.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.