Gap, Gymboree and VF Corp., among others, reported it in baby feeding bibs, dolls and soft toys. Gymboree and H&M reported it in educational and developmental toys and in fancy dress costumes. MGA Entertainment/Little Tikes found it in toys and games.
Like cobalt, little to nothing is known about whether there are any high exposures or health effects from traces of ethylene glycol in consumer products. The state of Washington listed it because the National Toxicology Program concluded that it may harm human development if oral exposures are high enough. Regulators knew it was an ingredient in a diaper ointment, body cleansers and other children’s products.
Breathing it for prolonged periods can irritate airways. But in lab animals, the kidneys are the most vulnerable organ to damage from high doses of ethylene glycol. It also harms animal fetuses at high doses, but “no information is available on the reproductive or developmental effects of ethylene glycol in humans,”according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Other commonly used substances include two metals, antimony and molybdenum, often used in yellow, red and orange pigments for children's toys. They were reported in nearly 800 products, including dolls and building blocks.
A powerful industrial solvent, methyl ethyl ketone, was reported in more than 400 products, including the plastics and textiles of infant toys and children's clothing.
Several others that can disrupt hormones – phthalates,bisphenol A, parabens, nonylphenol and D4 – turned up in textiles, skin products, plastics and other children’s items. Low levels of phthalates were found in more than 700 products.
The risks of the various chemicals depend on the amount that ends up in a product, and whether it's transferrable in a way that would result in exposing people, said John Meeker, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
Some of the listed chemicals, including the metals, phthalates and BPA, are known to get into the bodies of children who inhale, touch or consume them. Traces are detected in their bloodstream and urine in national testing conducted by the CDC.
"Over the years it's been demonstrated that some of these chemicals are making their way into the bodies of children. We don't want to wait too long to find out if they cause disease later in life,” Meeker said.
“There is enough evidence now to show we should limit exposure to some chemicals, including certain phthalates, certain pesticides and certain flame retardants," said Meeker, who studies the health effects of chemicals, particularly those that interfere with hormones.
Decades ago, some chemicals, such as lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), were widely used in products until they were recognized as harmful to people even at low levels. They were common ingredients in gasoline, paint and electrical equipment.
"It makes you wonder what chemical we'll be looking at in the future and asking how it could have been so widely used,” Meeker said.
Little known about health risks
Investigating health effects of consumer products, which contain many different chemicals, presents a challenge.