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Weeding out toxic toys

The Web site provides parents and gift-givers a much-needed resource to help weed out the toys that contain high levels of lead, arsenic, mercury, PVC plastic, and other chemicals.

Toys tested by

2007 has been the year of toy insecurity. Few parents of young kids escaped the unpleasant task of removing a favorite toy--from Aqua Dotsto Thomas the Tank Engine--that had been recalled.

And all parents were left with a feeling of unease, that globalization and lax US consumer standards have left us vulnerable to toxic chemicals being routinely used to make our toys (and cosmetics, food, electronics...but that's a larger topic for another day).

I predict that the big story next year will be the growing realization that European and Japanese standards for chemicals used in plastic toys are much more stringent than those in the USA, and that as a result, toys that are banned elsewhere are getting dumped into the US market.

But right now, Christmas is rapidly approaching, and families are busily shopping for gifts, and will unwrap gifts given by others over the next week. What's a parent to do? The Web site gives parents way to weed out toxic toys, by searching the HealthyToys database that provides a detailed breakdown of the substances found in over 1,200 toys they tested for lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, and PVC plastic. The results are alarming: of the 10 toys with the most lead, two of them are tea sets, with cups and teapots that are inevitably going to be filled with water that little kids will drink. Some plastic bath toys test high for lead and Chlorine/PVC, and these toys tend to go into toddlers' mouths as well.

So parents need all the help they can get, while we wait for government regulation to catch up with the need for more stringent standards, testing, and enforcement. The advocacy group MomsRising.orghas developed a text-messaging system that uses the database, so if you are in the toy aisle thinking of buying a gift, you can text the name of the toy to get the test results sent to your mobile phone.

In practice, I've found it more convenient to look at the database on a desktop computer while shopping online, but I think it's a promising technology in development. It's nice to get a new use for text messaging beyond "Pick up milk on your way home."

The HealthyToys initiative is coordinated by non-profit Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., and represents a coalition of environmental health groups from across the nation. This initiative is not just about protecting "our" children, but increasing awareness of toxics in the manufacturing process and the complete interaction in the environment, from worker health, to product safety, to ecosystem impact.

Amy Tiemann is a member of the volunteer leadership of