Keeping Children Safe from Dangers in Toys and Games

By Yolanda Whyte, MD,
Environmental Community Action Inc. (ECO-Action) Board Member

Playing with toys and games are one of the most enjoyable ways to socially engage children of all ages. Toys stimulate their visual and physical senses and, most importantly, their imagination. As a pediatrician, I can assess a child’s stage of development and some aspects of their mental health by carefully observing how they play and interact with toys. However, in my career, I’ve seen numerous health and safety risks that toys sometimes pose to our children.

African American baby playing with the letter A, 6 months old

Baby playing with the letter A, 6 months old

Younger children risk being exposed to dangerous plasticizers, heavy metals like lead and mercury, and other toxic chemicals added to toys and children’s products. Some toys have been found to contain dangerous levels of toxic chemicals that far exceed safety standards set by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Environmental Protection Agency. Since babies explore through touching and mouthing, especially when teething, they can ingest these toxins or absorb them through skin. Once children are exposed to these toxins they can build up over time and impair their development, organ function, ability to learn and overall health.  A number of consumer reports from health and advocacy groups have alerted us to this problem and its extent.  Here are just a few examples:

  1. Public Interest Research Group’s Trouble in Toyland report found over ten times the legal limit of chromium in a pencil case and over 20 times the legal limit in a slinky toy. Chromium can cause allergic reactions, rashes, ulcers and cancer. A jump rope was found to containing over 10 times the legal limit of phthalates which are linked to birth defects, hormone disruptions, early puberty and cancer
  2. The Campaign for Healthy Solution’s A Day Late and a Dollar Short report on dollar store products found children’s earrings to contain over 65 times the legal limit for lead, which can damage the brain and nervous system, increase the risk of cancer, preterm birth and birth defects. More than 80% of the products tested contained phthalates, antimony, chromium other toxic chemicals.
  3. The New York League of Conservation Voters’ Toxic Toys in Erie County report identified arsenic, cadmium, antimony, lead, cobalt and mercury in their testing of several children’s products sold in popular chain stores like Target, Macy’s, Party City and the Dollar Store.
  4. The Environmental Working Group also released a Tests Find Asbestos in Kids’ Crayons, Crime Scene Kits report where asbestos fibers, which are linked to lung disease and cancer, were detected in children’s crayons and fingerprint sets.
  5. In a coalition report from Washington Toxics, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families and Safer States report, retailers like Walmart, Target, Nike and Toys R Us reported on the presence of formaldehyde, phthalates, flame retardants, BPA, parabens and industrial solvents in children’s dolls, toys, toy cars, clothes, car seats, personal care products and other children’s products.

The toxicity of some chemicals is synergized when they are combined, and the effect on tissues and organs is more pronounced if the exposure occurs during a critical stage of child development.  These chemicals now commonly appear in biomonitoring studies of blood, urine and even the umbilical cord blood of newborns.  The rate of pediatric cancers, autism, birth defects have all increased over the past decades, urging for the immediate need to limit our exposure to toxic chemicals, as the single-most important prevention strategy.  A commentary entitled Evidence from Toxicology: The Most Essential Science for Prevention published in this month’s Environmental Health Perspectives adds that adopting principles in medicine and public health that are based on the evidence of toxicological studies has the benefit of reducing delays and costs for researchers, consumers, regulators and industry stakeholders.  This suggests a need for stronger protections by both state and federal lawmakers, and also for adequate resources for effective enforcement of environmental rules.

A very important federal bill, designed to regulate some of the chemicals that are allowed in our products, including toys, is now expected to be updated for the first time in four decades.  While the U.S. House and Senate passed their versions of the bill modernizing the Toxic Substances Control Act, loopholes still exist that allow many toxins to enter consumer markets and deny states the right to protect themselves with a stronger set of protections, when federal policies are inadequate.  Eco-Action is part of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, which has over 400 members, and is working to iron out these flaws in the final bill to be presented to President Obama and signed into law.

ECO-Action is committed to educating and protecting our local community on environmental and safety concerns such as these. We are dedicated to improving the health and quality of life for our children and families. Please contact us at for more information and how you can support a campaign for precautionary policy to prevent exposure to hazardous substances to Children and their families. Also, check out the following resources:

National Poison Control Center (800) 222-1212 or

National Battery Ingestion Hotline (202) 625-3333 or for an online compilation of US Recalls

Understanding the Relationship between Pollution and Poor Health

mold-8Can living in a building with mold, roaches and paint chips make you or your children more likely to have asthma attacks? NPR, in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, recently conducted a poll looking at the social determinants of health in America. When people rated 14 possible causes of ill health, respondents identified exposure to pollution as one of the top five. NPR has been running an audio series this week that looks at these issues.

Since December, residents of the Vine City and English Avenues neighborhoods of Atlanta have been looking at similar issues and trying to determine what they can do together. Neighbors met in late February to discuss next steps to take based on a survey that ECO-Action completed in partnership with Emory University School of Public Health. The survey looked at prevalence of mold in housing near Proctor Creek . It also tried to show the relationships between flooding and health problems. Some of the findings include:

  1. Mold was observed in more than half (53%) of residences,
  2. Residents reported being aware of the mold in their homes in just less than half (47%) of residences in which mold was observed,
  3. Participants with mold observed in their homes overall reported more coughing at night than those without mold,
  4. 14% of the survey participants reported currently having asthma.

In comparison:

  1. 1.5% had visible mold in the living room or bedroom in the American Healthy Homes Survey.
  2. 7.8% of people who participated in the 2010 Georgia Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey reported current asthma.

Additional information about the Proctor Creek Community Collaborative Health Survey can be found  in the Proctor Creek Survey Findings Community Brochure here.

The NPR story provides an easy entrée into a better understanding of the environmental health problems we are seeing in the Proctor Creek area of these neighborhoods. Low income persons living in substandard housing often face exposure to environmental contaminants and experience poor health as a result.

Here is a link to the Tuesday March 3rd show that focused on housing and its impacts on health.You can also watch an hour long forum which examines the social and environmental issues related to health or access links to the rest of the series here.

If you have any concern about air pollution or other environmental health issue in your community and you are willing to organize, you can call ECO-Action. We are ready to assist.

Transforming the Community through Collaborative Problem Solving

Harold Mitchell, Photos courtesy HERCULES Exposome Research Center

How does a community transform two superfund sites and several brownfields into housing developments, health centers and a golf courses?  That’s exactly the question the keynote speaker Harold Mitchell answered during his hour long talk at the HERCULES Environmental Health Community Forum last month. State Representative Mitchell had spoken to community members at ECO-Action’s June Community Forum, who wanted to hear more from him.

The process Harold and his community used has been codified into EPA Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem Solving Model (EJCPS).  The forum provided local communities both from the metro-Atlanta areas and from as far away as South Carolina to learn from Emory University scientists about the latest research around such topics obesity, healthy schools, climate change, mold and asthma.  The forum also presented overview training in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) Action and Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem Solving Models with hopes that communities would begin the groundwork to improve environmental health in their communities. ECO-Action has successfully used elements of this model to advance its work in Proctor Creek in Atlanta and other Georgia communities.

Mitchell now a South Carolina State Representative shared some of the secrets of the success of ReGenesis, a 15-year old program he founded to serve his Spartanburg South Carolina community. Starting with a $20,000 Environmental Justice Small Grant, around 50 community participants developed goals for the project as a whole that would address the environmental contamination in their neighborhood. Community Goal Setting is the first Photo courtesy HERCULES Exposome Research Centerelement of the collaborative problem solving model. For this Spartanburg project, goals were compiled in four areas: Environmental, Health, Economic and Social. The initial goal setting did not define the specific built infrastructure or programs that would ultimately be constructed. Instead, these were left open-ended which allowed the community to later take advantage of opportunities which they really couldn’t have imagined at the start of the process. To date ReGenesis has been able to leverage this initial investment into more than $250 million in funding that has revitalized the community.

More about ReGenesis and the Collaborative Problem Solving model next week.


Environment and the Economy

We the Economy is a series of 20 short films  that aim to drive awareness and establish a better understanding of the US. economy.

Take a look a the film A Bee’s Invoice, the Hidden Value of  Nature which discusses the economic value of “environmental services,” the commons and carbon market as related to our health and well being.

Watch WE THE ECONOMY – A Bee’s Invoice: The Hidden Value in Nature on Vimeo.

Synopsis: Are natural resources vital to the economy? Why should nature be taken into account when looking at the economy as a whole? “A Bee’s Invoice” uncovers and incorporates the hidden value of natural capital in the measurement of our economy.

The Dose Makes the Poison – or does it?

by Kacee Deener, Communications Director, EPA National Center for Environmental Assessment


When I was a graduate student, one of the first lectures in my toxicology class was about the history and basic principles of toxicology. We learned about Paracelsus, the 16th century physician-alchemist known as the father of toxicology, and how he coined the phrase “the dose makes the poison.” This has been a central tenant of toxicology and an important concept in human health risk assessment. The more we learn about the health effects of chemicals, however, the more we realize things may not be quite this simple.

I recently wrote about identifying the hazards of chemicals. Once we know what such hazards are, how do we know what levels of exposure will cause those health effects in humans? This is a really important question. To answer it, scientists do something called dose-response analysis, the next step in the human health risk assessment process. To do this, scientists calculate how different amounts (exposures or doses) of a chemical can impact health effects (responses) in humans.

Read more on the EPA It All Starts with Science Blog here.