The hidden problem
It is a holiday many would call sacred. And yet every day many Chinese citizens head into supermarkets and toy stores, and buy children's products without knowledge of what these products might contain. No product labels describe whether toxic metals or other hazardous substances are present. And among all those journeying migrant workers some are carrying in their big bundles and suitcases toys that may very well bring their children some short-term joy, but in the long run could be endangering their health.
What do these children's products contain?
The Greenpeace-IPEN study measured toxic metals in 500 children's products purchased in five Chinese cities: Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Wuhan. The products came from shopping trips to more than 40 retailers including shopping malls, street markets, and chain stores. Shoppers purchased a wide variety of products, ranging from school supplies to clothing to popular products for young children. Some were plastic, some were made of wood, and others included metal parts and jewelry. (Full test results are available at the IPEN website.) As far as we know this was the first publically available large-scale investigation of toxic metals in children's products in China.
To measure the metals, investigators used a portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer (XRF), testing for six toxic metals: antimony, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury. All six metals are well-known to cause serious harms to human health, especially in children.
Toxic metals in toys, school supplies, household products, and apparel
The results showed that one-third of tested products contained at least one toxic metal at levels of concern. Forty-eight samples (9.6% of the products) contained more than one toxic metal, increasing the possibility of harm. None of the tainted products contained warning labels to inform consumers about their toxic ingredients. The toys that tested positive for heavy metals, including lead, were found in every category of product, no matter whether it was branded or non-branded, cheap or expensive. In short, no matter who or where you buy your toy from in China, there is a possibility that a toxic metal is present.
Lead is extremely harmful to children, and yet we easily found products available for sale that tested positive for lead. In China, the regulatory limit for lead in consumer products is 600 ppm. However the study turned up 48 store-bought products with levels exceeding this level. These included dolls, balls, pencil boxes, toy cars, and backpacks. The top five lead-contaminated products contained truly shocking levels ranging from 12,467-120,960 ppm. These included a boy's ring, children's glassware, and a doll. A total of 82 products (16% of the products) violated a more protective lead standard of 90 ppm used in the US and Canada.
The study found other well-known toxic metals available in popular children's products including arsenic and mercury. Five children's products contained mercury at levels ranging from 39-78 times higher than the regulatory limit for mercury in cosmetics in China. Fifty-two products (10% of the products) contained significant levels of arsenic. These included dolls, toy cars, shoes and school supplies.
The Greenpeace-IPEN findings raises safety concerns for children (see further information on metals). Children's developing bodies are especially vulnerable to damage from heavy metals. Not to mention kids are more likely to chew objects and put their hands in their mouth thereby increasing their expose to any substances in these products. Put simply, toxic substances should not be present in children's products.
The primary responsibility for safe products lies with manufacturers who should ensure that toxic substances are not present. Fortunately, the high percentage of products (67%) with no, or low levels of metals indicates that elimination of metals in children's products is technically and economically feasible. The data in the Greenpeace-IPEN study shows that many companies already paying attention to the toxic metal content in their products. But now it's time for all companies to eliminate them.
Based on the results of this joint study, Greenpeace and IPEN recommend the following:
1. Brands and manufacturers should actively improve manufacturing processes and product design, and rapidly reduce and ultimately eliminate all hazardous substances, especially toxic heavy metals such as lead, from their products and production processes. The industry should also disclose information on chemical ingredients in products.
2. The government should strengthen its supervision over hazardous substances in children's products. It should adopt a more protective lead concentration limit in children's products and extend the concept of "total concentration limits" to other heavy metal substances using protective regulatory limits.
3. Consumers should carefully read product labels and try to identify chemical safety information before purchasing children's products. Through their inquiries about corporate environmental policy and product chemical information, consumers can help drive companies to progressively reduce and ultimately eliminate hazardous chemicals from their products and production processes. Consumers should also support rigorous regulatory policies to limit the presence of toxic substances in products.