Lead and Mercury in Kids' Toys? A New York County Is Cracking Down on Dangerous Chemicals in Children's Products
by Amanda Starbuck, 12/11/2014
UPDATE (Jan. 7, 2015): Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy signed the Toxic-Free Toys Act into law today, effectively banning seven toxic substances from children’s products sold in the county. This is a victory for the parents and advocacy organizations that fought to protect Albany County children from harmful substances linked to cancer, kidney damage, and cognitive impairment. Parents in Albany County will soon be able to purchase children’s products in the county with the peace of mind that they are not exposing their children to toxins.
On Monday, New York’s Albany County legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill that would protect children from toxins in toys and other products. The Toxic-Free Toys Act bans certain dangerous chemicals from any children’s products sold in the county. The bill is an important step toward safeguarding children from toxins that affect development and cause other health problems.
Toxins in Albany
The United States has taken important steps to protect our children from dangerous products, including removing choking hazards in toys and recalling dangerous cribs and car seats. However, federal standards still permit children’s products to contain a host of toxic chemicals. Everyday items, from toys to school supplies, contain hazardous chemicals linked to learning disabilities, cancer, and other health concerns.
Children face higher risks from toxins because the chemicals can affect their physical and neurological development.
Children face higher risks from toxins because the chemicals can affect their physical and neurological development. Babies and toddlers also explore objects with their mouths, increasing their chances of exposure.
These concerns led researchers in New York State to search for toxic toys on store shelves. Clean & Healthy New York and the New York League of Conservation Voters tested children’s products sold in Albany County. They focused on six heavy metals that would be banned under the Toxic-Free Toys Act. They found traces of all six metals in products ranging from a doll to hair accessories and jewelry:
- Five products contained lead, for which there is no safe level of exposure. Lead can irreversibly damage children’s IQ and cognitive development.
- Three products contained mercury, which can impair children’s neurological development.
- Alarmingly, researchers found one bracelet charm made of 25 percent cadmium, a toxin linked to kidney damage and cancer. Paint on children’s toys cannot contain more than 0.0075 percent cadmium, but federal regulations do not cover children’s jewelry.
- Several additional known or suspected cancer-causing substances were found, including antimony, arsenic, and cobalt.
The study, released last month, urged Albany County lawmakers to ban the sale of any children’s products containing the six heavy metals and endorsed the Toxic-Free Toys Act.
Banning Toxic Toys
The Toxic-Free Toys Act bans the six heavy metals identified above, along with benzene, a cancer-causing substance that can cause lethal poisoning in high doses.
The Toxic-Free Toys Act bans the six heavy metals identified above, along with benzene, a cancer-causing substance that can cause lethal poisoning in high doses. It gives the county health commissioner the authority to inspect children’s products sold in Albany County and issue fines for violators ranging from $500 to $1,000.
With thousands of children’s products on the market, this could be a daunting task, but there are important resources already available to Albany County officials. For example, the health commissioner could draw on information gathered by states like Washington, which requires companies that manufacture children’s products to report any products that contain certain chemicals of concern. The Washington Department of Ecology website provides searchable databases of these reports, as well as studies the department has undertaken itself.
These databases can also aid retailers in Albany County in finding toxic-free products. The Getting Ready for Baby Campaign also provides resources for retailers looking to identify and limit the sale of toxic products.
Broken Federal Chemical Standards
Removing toxins from children’s products seems like a no-brainer. But advocates in New York have been trying to pass the statewide Safe Children’s Products Act for years, which would ban certain toxic chemicals from children’s products. The bill failed to make it to the floor this past June, even though it had overwhelming bipartisan support.
Other states like Washington and Maine have successfully banned certain chemicals from children’s products sold in those states and require industry testing and disclosure of specific toxic chemicals.
On the federal level, chemicals are regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. This law gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to test and regulate chemicals for safety. But with more than 84,000 chemicals on the TSCA inventory, EPA still lacks data on the vast majority of chemicals in production. In the past 38 years, EPA has tested fewer than 300 chemicals and restricted a mere nine. Even EPA’s decision to ban asbestos was challenged in court by the industry and overturned in 1991.
Congress must reform TSCA so that it protects citizens from harmful substances they encounter every day. Safeguards must prioritize public health over industry concerns and also ensure that banning one substance doesn’t result in an equally harmful chemical taking its place.
In the meantime, states and counties will continue to pursue legislation necessary to fill in the gaps caused by the lack of federal oversight.
Unlike food items, toys don’t come with ingredient labels, and companies don’t advertise when their products contain harmful substances.
The Toxic-Free Toys Act now goes to Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy for approval. McCoy has 30 days to approve or veto the legislation and has already expressed his intent to bring the issue to a public hearing. Advocates hope McCoy will recognize the importance of this bill in safeguarding children’s health and sign the legislation into law.
Unlike food items, toys don’t come with ingredient labels, and companies don’t advertise when their products contain harmful substances. This leaves parents with few means for understanding the risks in children’s products. Albany County’s new legislation, along with efforts from states across the country, will ensure that toxic toys stay out of the hands of children.