Hazardous Metals in Vintage Plastic Toys Measured by a Handheld X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer

By Miller, Gillian Zaharias; Harris, Zoe E. | Journal of Environmental Health, January-February 2015 | Go to article overview

Hazardous Metals in Vintage Plastic Toys Measured by a Handheld X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer


Miller, Gillian Zaharias, Harris, Zoe E., Journal of Environmental Health


Introduction

Hazardous Metals in Contemporary Toys

Recent years have seen a sharp increase in revelations of so-called toxic toys and other everyday products contaminated with hazardous metals in the U.S. The reports have come from a number of sources: academic research studies, nonprofit centers, and occasionally, news outlets (Gregory & Roe, 2007; Guney & Zagury, 2012; HealthyStuff.org, 2008; Kumar & Pastore, 2007; Pritchard, 2012). Researchers have found handheld X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometers to be convenient and accurate for rapidly testing consumer products (Reames & Charlton, 2013).

Prior to 2009, when the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) went into effect, the U.S. had no laws restricting heavy metals in consumer products, including toys. The CPSIA restricted total lead in children's products to 600 ppm in 2009 and reduced the limit to 100 ppm in 2011. (Note that ppm, parts per million, is equivalent to mg/kg.) No mandatory limits exist on cadmium or other heavy metals in toys, although voluntary guidelines borrowed from Europe were adopted.

Table 1 lists current U.S. and EU mandatory limits for five heavy metals in children's toys (Guney & Zagury, 2012). Some European countries have their own restrictions; Denmark's are listed as an example.

Usage of Vintage Toys

An Internet search revealed a robust trade in pre-1990 vintage toys, including toys identical to those tested in our study. Some buyers are collectors; some are parents seeking remembered toys to give to their own children. The market for old toys, together with personal observation, suggests that vintage plastic toys are in widespread use in homes, daycares, church nurseries, and waiting rooms. A search of the academic literature shows a lack of research on old toys. A handheld XRF study of daycare center toys carried out in the Las Vegas area found a high rate of lead- and cadmium-containing toys, both vinyl and nonvinyl, in 10 different child care centers (Greenway & Gerstenberger, 2010). In that study, however, the age and origin of the toys were not known.

Health Risks

The developing brains and bodies of infants and young children are especially vulnerable to toxic exposures. This is because 1) they absorb and retain lead more efficiently than do adults (Ziegler, Edward, Jensen, Mahaffey, & Fomon, 1978); 2) they are exposed to contaminated dust particles by playing close to the floor; 3) they chew on, mouth, and occasionally swallow items; and 4) they handle many toys and frequently put their fingers into their mouths (Guney & Zagury, 2012).

No safe blood level of lead has been established; even very low amounts in a child's body are linked to reduced intelligence (Canfield et al., 2003; Lanphear et al., 2005). The long-term consequences of lead exposure, which affects virtually every organ system in the body, are reviewed in Rosin (2009). Tests of bioavailability of lead and cadmium from toys and jewelry have been reviewed in Gunery and Zagury (2012). Cadmium, while less well studied than lead, appears to impact brain development (Kippler et al., 2012). Cadmium is also known to damage renal function, may contribute to osteoporosis, builds up in the placenta, and may increase cancer risk (Jarup & Akesson, 2009).

Mercury, arsenic, and barium are additional chemicals of concern in children's products. Profiles of the toxicological effects of those metals can be found in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR, 2011).

One concern with old toys is degradation of the materials. Plastic objects will degrade over time, releasing small plastic particles as well as embedded metals or metal compounds. Thus, vintage toys may pose a greater exposure hazard than new toys.

Methods

A handheld XRF spectrometer, model Niton XL3t-980 GOLDD+, was rented from Thermo Scientific. …

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