Plastic is a type of synthetic polymer that is made up of millions of smaller molecules known as monomers in a chainlike sequence. Plastic can be moulded and shaped. Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is the most common plastic used in the production of soft children's toys that also contain toxic additives such as phthalates and lead. There are safer plastic alternatives for children's toys, but they are more difficult to find.
PVC, or polyvinyl chloride is a soft vinyl plastic that, according to the Oregon Toxics website, is the most toxic. While it has long-term durability, toys made with this plastic typically contain additives such as phthalates, lead or cadmium, that are used to soften the plastic. PVC is used to make toys such as rubber ducks, dolls, balls and soft infant toys. These toys could potentially have a negative health impact on children as they are vulnerable to toxic chemicals, especially as their bodies are developing. In particular, infants will often insert soft plastic chewable toys into their mouths, and chemicals such as phthalates can leach out when the toys are chewed. According to the Eco-Healthy Child Care website, PVC may lead to health concerns such as cancer, birth defects and developmental disorders.
Polypropylene is an alternative plastic to PVC that is also used in toy production. As a thermoplastic that was first developed in Europe and brought to the U.S. in the mid-1950s, polypropylene is fairly rigid, but does not require a plasticiser such as phthalates to increase its flexibility. It is very simple to process, non-toxic and resistant to corrosion. Additionally, polypropylene has a high temperature resistance and is resistant to stress and cracking. Containers with a number 5 in the recycling logo are made from polypropylene and children can reuse these as toys in the bathtub or sandbox.
Polythene is another alternative plastic to PVC. It is also a thermoplastic that does not require the use of a plasticiser to increase its flexibility. Polythene was first used in World War II as an insulating material and to coat underwater cables. According to the Plastics Industry website, polythene is currently the most popular plastic in the U.S. It is a durable, versatile polymer that varies from hard to soft and has some of the same properties as polypropylene. Teething rings are an example of a toy made from polythene.
PVC, especially when used in the production of children's toys, is controversial as there are serious potential health concerns. Health effects will not likely be seen right away and it may even take a generation before they are noticed. An example of a health concern involves the endocrine system, which is extremely sensitive to chemicals and is involved in the development of organs, cell programming, brain behaviour and function. Toys made of other plastics, or natural materials such as wood, should be considered. Parents should also get rid of older plastic toys in the home as they are likely to contain the highest content of toxic chemicals. Buy toys from well-known stores and stick to major brands.
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- PlasticsIndustry.com: Types of Plastics
- Bad Plastics: The presence of phthalates in toys is just one of the concerns when it comes to toys and toxic chemicals
- Oregon Toxics Alliance: Plastics in Toys
- Greenpeace.org: Background on Plastic Toys
- Children's Environmental Health Network: Plastics and Plastic Toys