Cobalt in plastic building blocks and baby bibs. Ethylene glycol in dolls. Methyl ethyl ketone in clothing. Antimony in high chairs and booster seats. Parabens in baby wipes. D4 in baby creams.
An Environmental Health News analysis of thousands of reports from America’s largest companies shows that toys and other children’s products contain low levels of dozens of industrial chemicals, including some unexpected ingredients that will surprise a public concerned about exposure.
The reports were filed by 59 large companies, including Gap Inc., Mattel Inc., Gymboree Corp., Nike Inc., H&M and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., to comply with an unprecedented state law.
Stronger than any other chemical disclosure law in the United States, Washington state’s Children's Safe Product Act, enacted in 2008, has changed the right-to-know game around the country. For the first time, since September of last year, consumers have access to a searchable, online database revealing which companies report “chemicals of high concern” in products made or marketed for children.
The 66 chemicals, gleaned from lists compiled by U.S. and international agencies, were chosen because studies have linked them to cancer or to reproductive, developmental or neurological effects in animals or people.
In most cases, no one knows what, if anything, exposure to small doses of these chemicals may do to people, especially babies and toddlers who tend to chew on items or rub them on their skin. For many of these compounds, there has been little or no research to investigate children’s exposure to them.
But some health experts worry about unknown risks because it is now clear that dozens of chemicals untested for potential health effects are found in everyday items, such as clothing, footwear, furniture and toys.
"Children are uniquely vulnerable to exposures given their hand-to-mouth behaviors, floor play and developing nervous and reproductive systems," said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatric researcher at the University of Washington and the Seattle Children's Research Institute who advised state officials when they wrote the disclosure rules.
Manufacturers say the presence of a chemical in a product does not mean it is harmful to human health or that any safety standard is being violated.
"If a substance on the Washington state list is found in a toy or game, it doesn't automatically mean there is a risk or cause for concern. There may be no exposure to the substance whatsoever," said Alan Kaufman, senior vice president of technical affairs for the Toy Industry Association.
Officials with the state agency agree. "Simply the presence of a chemical in a product does not really say it’s causing harm to anyone," said Alex Stone, a chemist in the Washington Department of Ecology and part of the team that wrote the regulations.
Nevertheless, trying to get to the bottom of hidden chemicals in children's products was the driving force behind Washington's pioneering law. The Legislature enacted it in the wake of recalls of lead-tainted Thomas the Train sets and Sesame Street’s Elmo, among others.
Shoppers cannot look up specific toys and other items, but they can see which companies report chemicals in general categories of products. There are hundreds of searchable product types, such as train sets, clothing, baby bibs and dolls. Consumers also can search by chemicals.
Seattle mother Rachel Koller, who campaigned for the law, said she tries to avoid buying products for her 5-year-old daughter that contain certain chemicals. But most compounds don't have to be included on ingredient lists, so there is little information available. She said the new database helps, although it raises lots of unanswered questions about risks.
“We use the research we have, and make the best decisions," Koller said.
The first reporting, due last August, required companies with gross annual revenues of $1 billion to report chemicals in products that could be put into the mouth by children under 3 years old, and those intended to be put in the mouth or rubbed on the skin for children under 12 years old. The second reporting, due last February, included products intended for prolonged contact with the skin, including clothing, jewelry and bedding. Reporting by smaller companies comes next August.
The new law already is driving changes in products. Some companies, including Wal-Mart, Gap, Nike and VF Corp., have filed documents with the state stating that they would eliminate some chemicals on the list.
Nike, Lego Systems, Gap and Wal-Mart did not respond to EHN's requests for comment. In e-mail messages, Gymboree stressed that all of its products met or exceeded federal and state safety requirements, while H&M said it meets all standards and that it works to limit, and find substitutes for, hazardous chemicals. Mattel referred calls to the Toy Industry Association.
Cobalt rises to the top
Cobalt, an element used in many blue dyes and other pigments, turns out to be a favorite with manufacturers. Surprisingly, it was the most commonly reported substance, turning up so far in 1,228 individual products in 40 different categories.
Lego reported cobalt in the pigment of some plastic building blocks, while Mattel reported it as a surface coloration in a powered ride-on toy, drawing boards and role-play toys. Cobalt and its compounds also were reported in pigments and inks of baby feeding bibs sold by Gap and Gymboree, and in synthetic baby changing mats by the VF Corp., which represents two dozen brands, including Nautica, Wrangler and JanSport. New Balance and other companies used cobalt in surface coatings as well as in synthetic polymers and textiles of footwear.
Traces of cobalt have been found in the urine of nearly all children and adults tested in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The sources are unknown, however.
Understanding cobalt's human health effects comes primarily from metal workers, who develop bronchial asthma and lung disease, including cancer, linked to their workplace exposure. In autopsies, exposed workers generally had higher levels of cobalt in kidney, lung and spleen tissue than unexposed workers.
Rodent studies showed lung and other cancers, testicular atrophy, reduced fertility and accumulation of cobalt in organs that affected their function, particularly in young animals. Exposure to fish damaged sperm and hampered reproduction.
But there are no published studies of people routinely exposed to cobalt from consumer products.
Cobalt is “not on the radar of researchers,” said David Bellinger, a Harvard professor of neurology who studies the effects of metal exposure on children’s developing brains. “I do not think that I have ever seen a study on its potential toxicity in children – or adults. If it is a common exposure and it is bioavailable, then it should be looked at.”
A solvent in polyester
The second most common chemical was an industrial solvent named ethylene glycol, which was reported in more than 1,000 products, mostly plastics. Known for its use as an antifreeze, ethylene glycol also is used to make polyester and plastic water bottles.
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.
"It's hard to do a study because you cannot dose kids with chemicals and then see what happens to them. So when we're doing these kinds of studies, we look at what they're exposed to and try to parse health outcomes," Sathyanarayana said.
With so little understanding of the risks, "we should be trying to reduce the exposure to young children. They have developing organ systems, and these chemicals can affect the developing organ systems,” Sathyanarayana said.
Researchers at Silent Spring Institute have measured chemicals in consumer products, and in the air and dust in homes, with the goal that the knowledge would lead to reduced exposure. "Now it's time to look at how these consumer products affect chemical levels in the body," said research scientist Robin Dodson.
"We could measure the effect on asthma. But cancer? That would take 30 years,” she said.
Washington state officials said while the mere presence doesn't necessarily mean these products are harmful, it does mean that regulators can follow up, and ask why these toxics are there and whether the products can be made without them.
"What we're hoping to do is see what's being reported frequently. We can examine the data and decide based on the chemical's toxicity whether we want to take more action through the legislative process," said Stone, a state toxicologist.
A case in point is the regulators’ move to collect more information on a group of five related chemicals – four parabens and para-hydroxybenzoic acid – used widely as preservatives in creams, powders, adhesives and fragrances. The European Union classes them as endocrine disruptors. Children's products often contain mixtures of two or more parabens, and the government scientists want to consider the synergistic effects.
"Rather than ask, `Is this product good? Is this product bad?' we’re trying to understand how pervasive a chemical is in the supply chains of all products," said environmental planner John Williams, the agency's lead writer of the law.
"Otherwise, you're in the dark about all the different ways a chemical could get to you,” he said. “For example, if you have a plastic Lego, a plastic button on your coat and a plastic doll head. If there is the same toxic chemical in all of them, that might be a chemical worth looking at. If we found an alternative for the chemical that is less toxic, and can still serve that function, we would have a broader impact across all the product categories.”
Companies say database causes confusion
But manufacturers say compiling the database isn’t helpful to consumers.
"Reporting mere content without risk for the sake of reporting is not productive, and there remains much confusion about such reporting,” according to a statement by the 250-member Juvenile Product Manufacturing Association.
AlphaGary Corp. global business manager Dave Kiddoo agreed. The specialty plastics manufacturer has a seat on the state's advisory committee that shaped the Massachusetts toxics-reduction law.
"It's irresponsible throwing these lists out there, and saying a certain chemical is wrong for all applications. An appropriate approach is to look at each application and look at the hazard and the exposure in each application,” Kiddoo said.
Consumer advocates acknowledge that the chemical listing does not answer questions about health risks. But they see the value in Washington's first step by identifying problematic chemicals in children's products, and seeing which industries use them.
“You do get a sense for what types of chemicals are in what types of products. The 'chemicals of concern' list becomes a do-not-use list for manufacturers because no one wants consumers to know their products contain a harmful chemical. These lists are essential in helping transform the marketplace away from toxic chemicals," said Ivy Sager-Rosenthal, a spokeswoman forSafer States, a coalition of nonprofits lobbying for more disclosure. The coalition supports federal legislation that would modernize the federal Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976, including making more chemical information open to the public.
Several other states, including New York, Oregon, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine and Minnesota, are considering various types of legislation that would force industries to disclose their use of some chemicals in consumer products.
After Washington’s law went into effect, Rite Aid, Wal-Mart, Vi-Jon Inc., Western Family Foods, among others, indicated that their suppliers would reformulate children's products to eliminate parabens. Gap reported it was phasing out the phthalate DINP, which had been in clothing.
Kaufman, of the toy industry group, said phthalates are being replaced in toys. Even if the federal government doesn't recommend banning the three under study – DINP, DIOP and DIDP – toy makers probably won't use them, he said.
"I think people have some substitutes and wouldn't suddenly switch back,” he said.
But Kaufman cautioned that some other chemicals on the list are more difficult to replace. They may be the materials that give toy products the strength to be dropped, pulled, bitten and subjected to compression. Bisphenol A, the substance used to make tough polycarbonate plastic in safety goggles and bicycle helmets, is one example, he said.
Megan Schwarzman, a University of California, Berkeley, research scientist who specializes in green chemistry policy, called Washington's effort "a profound departure from the status quo."
"A lot of people have been asking for this information for a long time, to find out what chemicals are in our daily lives. In terms of everyday products, the information just isn't in the public domain. No one has ever required manufacturers to report that," Schwarzman said.
"Ultimately, public disclosure can motivate companies to start asking about the safety of the chemicals in their products, and speed up the shift from hazardous chemicals to safer ones.”
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.