Your old toys might be poisoning you

·3 min read

Advances in technologies as well as improved regulations generally make toys and other manufactured goods safer to interact with. Of course, they don’t account for possession by the soul of a serial killer along the lines of Chucky (now streaming on Peacock!). Barring that edge case, playing with toys is by and large a safe thing to do. However, recent research reveals that playtime can become less safe the older a toy is.

Children — and adults, let’s be honest — often want only the newest toys, but in a world increasingly buried in mountains of trash, many are making the push toward more circular economies. The idea is to keep toys and other materials in circulation as long as possible to lessen the strain on the environment. That endeavor is now being challenged by the realization that our old toys and other manufactured materials like dress-up items might be poisoning us.

The research, carried out by scientists from the University of Gothenburg and published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances, tested a collection of 157 toys and dress-up items in search of potential toxins.

In particular, they were looking for phthalates and short chain chlorinated paraffins, hereafter referred to as SCCPs, which are commonly used as plasticizers and flame retardants. These compounds have been previously identified as capable of disrupting growth processes, development, and reproductive capacity in those exposed. What’s more, children are at particular risk of negative side effects as a result of their smaller body size, higher metabolic rates, and still-developing organ and hormonal systems. As a result, European regulatory bodies tightened restrictions in 2005, limiting the amounts of phthalates and SCCPs allowable in toys and other products. At present, the limit for phthalates and SCCPs is set at 0.1% and 0.15% of the total construction, respectively.

The 157 items tested by researchers were sorted into two groups and labeled as either old or new. The designation of an item was contingent upon whether it was manufactured before or after the restrictions tightened. Therefore, it is to be expected that older toys would have higher levels of toxins present than newer ones. Even still, the results of the study were surprising.

Of the 103 old toys, 84% were found to contain phthalates and SCCPs exceeding the legal limit and some of them were shockingly high. Several old toys contained concentrations of phthalates which accounted for 40% of the toy’s total weight, roughly 400 times more than is legally allowable. Perhaps even more surprising was the discovery that even new toys, those which were manufactured after the regulations were put in place, also had high levels, although to a lesser degree. Roughly 30% of the 54 new toys contained toxin levels which were deemed unsafe.

The results suggest that picking up a toy, whether or old or new, is tantamount to playing a sort of biological Russian roulette which most of us don’t even know we’re playing. It’s enough to make you think twice about jumping in a ball pit or picking up old toys from a local yard sale. Worse, knowing that old playthings are significantly more toxic than new ones throws a wrench into the philosophy of re-use.

It’s unlikely that your new toy will go on a killing spree across your neighborhood like Chucky, but your old toys might be silent destroyers.