Banned chemicals are found in toys more than any other product type, according to analysis of alerts shared by governments across Europe in 2018.

This story was also covered by the Guardian, TrouwRzeczpospolitaNépszava, De Morgen

Officials this year issued warnings about 290 toys found with illegal levels of toxic substances banned by the EU because they may cause cancer, autism and birth defects or other health impacts.

Most (250 models) were plastic toys, 150 models were plastic dolls, 21 were modelling clays or slimes, 31 were balloons or balls. More toys failed chemical checks than any other type of product, including clothing (42 models), cosmetics (91), jewellery (51) and even protective equipment (5), according to analysis of alerts sent via the EU rapid alert system Rapex this week by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the largest network of environmental organisations in Europe. Of the 1,996 products of all types checked for all risks, 563 failed chemical tests.

Last week, news emerged that customs officers destroyed 31,590 mainly plastic Chinese dolls they considered a “serious risk” to children due to illegal levels of phthalates. Officers said 92% of the 722,000 toys seized carried the CE safety stamp.

The stamp indicates the manufacturer met EU health, safety, and environmental standards and its presence is “worrying”, according to Polish ministry of finance officer Anna Kobylecka. Phthalates are endocrine disrupting chemicals, ten of which are classified as ‘substances of very high concern’, some of which have been banned for many years.

A string of more recent cases indicate the problem is not a one-off. An EU sponsored enforcement project looking not at imports, but at goods already on the European market reported in November 2018 that one in five toys had “very high” levels of phthalates, and that toys failed tests more than any other product group.

Other recent cases include:

  • Last week, nearly half of ‘slime toys’ failed EU safety standards for toys (EN 71-3) when tested by a UK consumer group for the harmful chemical boron. Similar results were found across Europe.
  • In November, the Swedish chemicals agency uncovered illegal levels of ‘substances of very high concern’, including lead, cadmium, paraffins and flame retardants, in Christmas lights.
  • In October, a report based on product testing in 19 European countries, found some of the most dangerous chemicals in the planet in products, including toys, made of recycled plastic. Similar findings were made in 2017 and 2015.
  • In October, the Danish parliament debated mandatory toy labels listing their chemical ingredients. An amendment will be tabled in January. If it became law, it would be the first in Europe. One supermarket chain has already made the pledge.

EEB chemicals policy manager Tatiana Santos said:

We are happy to see agents blocking dangerous toys. Sadly they are fighting a losing battle. Manufacturers do not fear the law and government inspectors are outnumbered and outgunned. With the UN talking about a silent pandemic of disease due to chemical exposure, we need proper chemicals control and enforcement more than ever. Yet the EU just put a wide-ranging and overdue strategy to tackle the problem on ice. It should reverse that decision. And in the meantime, shoppers this Christmas might want to try and avoid plastic toys altogether.

The NonHazCity project provides parents with advice on how to avoid chemical exposure from toys.

European laws are central to chemical controls at national level. REACH regulation set out to ban 1,400 of the most toxic substances, thereby stimulating development of safer alternatives. Over a decade later, just 43 are banned in principle. Of these, the EU has a 100 percent track record of allowing companies to continue using them. With no effective legal driver, companies are instead demanding financial incentives to innovate.

The European Chemicals Agency and government authorities have been told to raise their game by the European Commission in a recent strongly worded staff working document. Yet the Commission froze an important, wide-ranging and overdue non-toxic environment strategy, a prime chance to reform chemical regulations and effectively control harmful substances.

This follows pressure from industry and an ongoing deregulation agenda, NGOs say. Last week, the former head of the European Chemicals Agency said it was time to go “back to the drawing board”. Meanwhile, toy and textile makers are among the industries trying to kill off a mandatory tool to let citizens trace harmful chemicals in products.