Toys made with recycled plastics expose children to toxic chemicals, new study finds

When plastics from electronic waste are recycled, toxic chemicals in the plastics transfer to the new products made with the recycled material. A new study looking at effects from children’s toys made from recycled e-waste plastics published in the journal Environment International found that children can be exposed to highly toxic chemicals from recycled plastic products, above proposed safety standards. 

The study, “Global survey of dioxin- and thyroid hormone-like activities in consumer products and toys” assessed levels of several chemicals, including highly toxic, brominated dioxins (PBDD/Fs) in recycled plastic toys and other products. PBDD/Fs occur as impurities following the use of brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which are chemicals often added to plastics in electronics to confer flame resistance. 

Alarmingly, the study found that the average level of PBDD/Fs found in 24 toys exceeded proposed EU safety standards for a tolerable daily intake of dioxins and dioxin-like compounds, given young children’s typical mouthing behaviors. 

The findings, based on testing on human cells, show that typical mouthing behaviors of young children who play with recycled plastic toys could significantly contribute to their daily intake of highly toxic dioxin-like compounds and other endocrine disrupting chemicals. Dioxins are among the most toxic chemicals known and are known to be harmful to children’s health, including by hampering neurological development and thyroid hormone function. 

A child puts a toy in mouth. Photo credit: iStock/ AaronAmat

The study found toxic substances, including chemicals that have been banned globally, in toys and other products made with recycled e-waste plastics (called black plastics) purchased from 26 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. The findings are crucial for the design of the new Plastics Treaty which will be discussed at the third International Negotiations Committee meeting in Nairobi. Recycling of plastics and toxic chemicals in recycled plastic products are one of the crucial elements to be discussed at the meeting. 

Plastics are made with toxic chemicals and the study and numerous previous studies demonstrate that these chemicals make plastics a material that is incompatible with circular economy principles. 

The study also assessed products for levels of tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), an endocrine disrupting chemical known to impact thyroid hormone functioning and linked to cancer and reproductive harm. High levels of TBBPA were found in most of the black plastic consumer products and toys, indicating that the products could expose children to this toxic chemical.

A child plays with toys. Photo credit: iStock/ AaronAmat

“Our study simulates the real impact of products from plastic recycled from e-waste on human cells by analyzing hormone disrupting toxic activities. We were shocked to find that children could be exposed to significant amounts of highly toxic chemicals from recycled plastic toys,” said Dr. Peter Behnisch from the Amsterdam laboratory BioDetection Systems, one of the lead authors of the study.

The study also found that the level of PBDD/Fs in toys and other products were above proposed levels for similar chemicals in toxic wastes. Based on chemical analyses, 15 out of 24 toys, and 16 out of 24 consumer products showed higher levels than the proposed standard for chlorinated dioxins in toxic waste under the Basel Convention. Based on tests showing dioxin-like levels by cellular activity, 16 out of the 24 toys, and 13 out of the 24 other products analyzed contained higher levels than the proposed limit for toxic waste. The levels of PBDD/Fs found in some toys and other products were similar to levels found in certain hazardous wastes, including highly toxic waste incineration ash. 

The findings also highlight the need for addressing chemicals in plastics in the new global Plastics Treaty and avoiding a Treaty focused only on the volume of plastic waste generated. 

Toys. Photo credit: iStock/ cjmacer

“We collected children’s toys, kitchen utensils and products for women to determine first, the extent of contamination by toxics regulated by international treaties, and second, whether the treaties are strict enough to protect human health in African and other developing countries. Unfortunately, our results show that the international treaties are not doing enough to protect our health,” said Semia Gharbi, Chairperson of the Association de l’Education Environnementale pour les Futures Générations (AEEFG) in Tunisia and a co-author of the study. 

“The current situation allows plastics to poison the circular economy.”  

The study recommends “Improving chemical monitoring of plastics for recycling to avoid recycling contaminated plastics into new toxic products.”

“The current limits set for control of toxic halogenated compounds in plastics allow toys and other consumer products to be made with toxic flame retardants (accompanied by dioxins and endocrine disrupting chemicals as by-products). Based on our study, we are calling for stricter limits and better control of all toxic chemicals in recycled plastics that reflect the latest scientific findings,” said Jindrich Petrlik, program director of Arnika – Toxics and Waste Program and IPEN expert on dioxins and waste and one of the co-authors of the study.

Top photo credit: iStock/ junce

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