This Holiday Season, We Want Safer Toys & Gear! 5 Questions With Environmental Working Group’s Heather White On How To Make That Wish Come True
January 25, 2023
By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director
Holiday shopping season is here. If you’re trying to navigate letters to Santa and other toy-filled wish lists with kids’ health in mind, you could probably use some help. That’s why we just released our latest e-book, Easy Steps to Safer Toys & Gear.
It’s also why we reached out to Heather White, executive director of Environmental Working Group. We wanted her take on how it’s humanly possible that there are still unsafe chemicals in toys and gear in 2023, what to do about the stuff you can’t avoid (hello, car seats) and how to approach electronics.
Why Heather? Not only is she an environmental health expert and a mom, but also because we’re thrilled to announce that Healthy Child Healthy World is joining forces with EWG! Read all about our merger.
Now back to Heather.
1. There’s a maddening number of unsafe chemicals in children’s toys and gear. How is it possible that there are endocrine disruptors in plastics, and even lead in toys—in 2023? Can you provide some context? What—if any—legislation is in place to keep kids safe from toxic chemicals in their stuff?
It goes back to our broken federal toxics law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, which was passed in 1976 and has not been updated since. It’s hard to believe, but chemicals don’t have to be proven safe before they go on the market. There’s no real system safeguarding people. There’s no way for consumers to find out—except after the fact—whether a chemical is unsafe. We have seen that in many different contexts. Take the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) in baby bottles and sippy cups. There are more than 200 peer-reviewed academic studies showing it can affect the endocrine system and even lead to heart disease. We had a successful campaign with many parents raising concerns about it. EPA never took action, but a lot of companies did. They started saying, Our consumers are concerned, so we’d better be concerned. They took it out and created BPA-free options. But now there’s concern about the chemicals replacing BPA.
When it comes to lead, the situation is a bit different. The Consumer Product Safety Commission does regulate the safety of toys. There is federal legislation dealing with lead, certain phthalates, and cadmium. But we’re a long way from over-regulation—I’m thinking about the recent elections!—when it comes to dealing with many products, especially when so many are made abroad. The government doesn’t have the resources to make sure our limited laws are adequately enforced. We need to shop smarter, but ultimately we have to change the laws.
2. Some people claim it’s ok that these chemicals are in toys since the amounts are low enough to be safe. Does the dose make the poison, or is there some sort of cumulative and/or combined harm parents should be aware of? There is, for example, no safe level of lead.
Cumulative doses do matter. With pharmaceuticals, low doses often make all the difference. The same goes here. The scientific literature is really clear. In general, the higher the dose, the worse the poison, but when it comes to the hormone system, small doses can have a greater impact. And we need to think about the combinations of chemicals lurking in our homes and what are kids are exposed to. We’re doing all we can to provide good guidance to parents on how to approach this. Take a deep breath, get educated, try to make decisions based on what you’re doing. Put exposures in context: food first, what’s on your skin next, then toys.
3. In the absence of clear labels (like, This Toy Contains Lead!) and given how hard it is to follow manufacturing chains, how should parents safeguard their kids as they play and grow, especially during holiday gift-giving season?
Get educated. When you can, avoid plastic and especially single-use plastics. Avoid metal trinkets and soft plastic. Avoid anything with flame retardants when you can—even in play mats. Avoid things that are made abroad. Opt for natural wood. Choose water-based paints.
But you can’t live in a bubble. My awareness of all of these things came after my children were toddlers. My mom always gets us stuff she finds at the dollar store. I’m like, Mom! What are you doing? You know what I do.
4. You mention flame retardants. What do you suggest parents do when something necessary like a car seat or a stroller contains them or other potentially harmful chemicals?
Wash your kids’ hands a whole lot with regular old soap and water. Vacuum frequently with a HEPA filter. We did a study of mothers and their toddlers with scientists at Duke and found that every mother and child tested showed evidence of exposure to a cancer-causing fire retardant. And on average, the kids’ levels were much higher than their mothers’. Small children have higher exposures to fire retardants because they spend more time on the floor, where dust contaminated with these chemicals accumulates. Kids also put their hands in their mouths more often than adults do. Hand washing helps.
5. Do you have a take on whether electronics and kids are a good mix?
Establish good habits when you’re using them. Turn your wireless off for games or move it away from your body if you’re face-timing. Keep phones away from kids’ heads.
Use headsets. Some of the research on safety is based only on adult males. For kids, adopt the precautionary principle. We especially suggest that pregnant woman approach electronics via the precautionary principle – no iPad on the belly. And keep in mind that fewer and fewer kids are having unstructured outdoor time, which is important. We want to limit their access to electronics so it’s not their main activity.
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