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Banning Toxic Toys to Build a Bright Green Childhood
Alex Steffen, 28 Mar 08

Big Toy is on the march. According to Seattle media reports, the CEOs of Hasbro and Mattel flew into Washington State's capital Olympia, the national Toy Industry Association blew $50,000 on a last minute lobbying campaign and right wing bloviators have filled the air with shrill warnings about the latest assault on the American way of life. What horrible transgression is it that's gotten their panties in a twist?

A new law (PDF), just passed by the state Senate, which would ban the manufacture or sale of toys containing more than trace amounts of certain toxic chemicals. Apparently bowing to the pressure the toy industry is putting on, Washington's governor, Christine Gregoire, is considering vetoing the bill.

Now, I'm pro-toy. I love toys and games and puzzles, and I think that play is one of the best things about being human, and without a doubt the best thing about being a kid. But something has gone very wrong with the toys we now buy our kids.

The toxic components commonly found in toys have made front-page news again and again over the last few months, but the more we know, the worse the story gets. When the HealthyToys project tested a large random sample of toys sold in the U.S., they found that high levels of lead were widespread, many plastic toys were made from PVC and arsenic and cadmium were surprisingly common.

Now caveats apply in both directions. As the HealthyToys site itself says, "the presence of a chemical in a product does not necessarily mean there is exposure." It is possible for a toy to contain some dangerous substances and not itself be dangerous. And the tests done used a technology known XRF that cannot detect certain toxics, like bisphenol A or phthalates, that are thought to be extremely dangerous. Nor has much work been done on the combined effects of different toxics on the health of children.

Nevertheless, we know more than enough to be able to draw some conclusions about the toys our kids are playing with. Some of those toys are dangerous to kids and destructive to the planet. Others are not.

Consider the My Pasture Play Set, a set of toy animals made by Shuang Ma Toys that measured both the fifth largest amount of lead and the most antimony of any of the 1,200 toys tested. The complete chemical work-up on the MPPS is pretty shocking, revealing that the animals are practically oozing not only lead and antimony but cadmium, chlorine, arsenic, mercury, bromine and chromium. While, again, the health effects might be difficult to predict, these are not toys, I think it's safe to say, that most of us would want our kids putting in their mouths.

Nor, I suspect, would we like their backstory. Perhaps Shuang Ma Toys is a model environmental corporate citizen, runs on wind power, uses state-of-the-art green manufacturing processes and manages to get all of the toxics it uses into the toys themselves. But by most accounts, toy factories in China are much like other factories in China: essentially unregulated, spewing vast amounts of greenhouse gasses and toxic waste into the air and water, while mistreating their workers. Buying these toys makes you and your kid partially responsible for creating those conditions. That's a lot of moral burden to place on a toy giraffe.

Now consider a different toy, with a different kind of story to tell. ImagiPlay's AniMates Giraffe Pair game, made only from "Preservative-Free Rubberwood, Non-Toxic Water-Based Paint and/or Lacquer" and crafted in Sri Lanka under fair-trade conditions. All the savannah fun, with a fraction of the apocalypse and childhood illness.

The conventional argument against making this sort of a switch is price: the AniMates giraffes cost $6, which is probably more that the entire My Pasture Play Set. Won't making better toys drive up prices and restrict our kids' access to the toys they want, thus ruining their childhoods and driving a wedge between them and their parents that only decades of counseling and ruined holiday dinners can repair?

Maybe. But the American toychest as it now stands is a pretty crappy happiness delivery mechanism, full of unloved, broken and discarded junk, junk which is slowly shedding and off-gassing potentially dangerous chemicals into our homes. And buying into the idea that when it comes to childhood, "more" means "better" is producing a nation of cluttered playrooms and spoiled little monsters, as even a few minutes spent on a site like Birthdays Without Pressure will remind us:

A Chicago party invitation requests gift worth at least $35. The mother explains that last year her child received some gifts worth only $10, which did not even cover her costs.

A mother works hard to plan a nice at-home party for her eight year old daughter, who announces at the end, “It just wasn’t magic enough.”

A six year old guest who is disappointed by a St. Paul party without gift bags, declares, “This is a rip off!”

A happy childhood involves toys, certainly. And it's a total pleasure to give a kid a toy and see him or her run around the room with a big happy smile. But a happy childhood is about a lot more than toys -- it's about time and love and teaching and having fun. None of those things demands giant piles of toxic crap.

In fact, I'd suspect that we'd be a happier nation if kids had half as many toys, but had toys that were safer, more durable, and a lot cooler (as far as I can see, arsenic and antimony are not necessary parts of the creative process of better toy creation). I'd bet that a bright green childhood is happier, healthier and more fun for the kids... and far less destructive of the world they'll inherit.

We can do better. There are even industry groups already forming to make the toy business sustainable. The Washington law will not destroy the toy industry, just like banning asbestos didn't destroy the construction industry and banning lead paint didn't destroy interior design.

Washington Toxics Coalition is asking for help convincing the governor to stiffen her spine on this issue, and if you want to speak out, I'm sure they'd appreciate it.

But the larger point is this: We know that one a small and shrinking planet, eventually all toys will need to be sustainable and safe. Why should we wait? What, really, do we or our kids gain by letting toy companies sell toys full of cadmium and lead for a few more years?

Banning toxic toys is one of those clear-cut cases when the best solution is not a market in tradable solutions, or the promotion of design innovation, but a flat out prohibition. Sometimes, the most worldchanging word is "no."

(Image credit: Chinese toy factory worker.)

(Front image credit: CC.)

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Great post. I do wonder why the toys made from good materials are so much less realistic and colorful. That's no longer the case for healthy food or earth-friendly clothes, so why toys?

Posted by: Jane on 28 Mar 08

I completely agree. Kids don't even get any pleasure out of a multitude of toys, anyway. They play with a few. My childhood had a tenth of the toys my kids have, and I don't think I was sad or retarded.

I think you hit on the heart of the problem. The low price has driven a surfeit of "stuff" most of it is low quality, highly toxic and of questionable value. It's another symptom of greed in society.

Another source of non toxic touys in the BBC news story about traditional toy makers in India reviving their trade of handmade wooden toys painted with vegetable dyes:

Posted by: Caveat Emptor on 28 Mar 08

I believe a lot of toxic toy buying is done out of
ignorance .I believed at one time the government would
never allow our companies to create and sell toxic toys never mind importing them from countries that
have done so much damage to our own manufacturers
of every kind and who could care less about our
childrens health and safety THERE SHOULD BE A LAW!!!

Posted by: carol schwartz on 29 Mar 08

Whenever there's an opportunity for Gov. Gregoire to sell out the people of Washington to some big corporate lobbyist organization, she rarely dissappoints the lobbyists.

It make me chuckle, or hang my head in shame, depending, that the self-syled liberals of Greater Seattle-Bellevue (the major political force in any state race) are so enamored with the D after a candidate's name that they'll vote for anyone who can mouth the words they want to hear.

I do hope our Governor proves me wrong, however.


In the future please do me a favor: Don't put pictures of my wife's country-women on your posts to try to evoke some "sad chinese woman in a factory = evil toxic sweatship" chic. Thanks.

Posted by: Michael E on 30 Mar 08



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