Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What's Wrong with Plastic Toys? Part 1

There is an ever-present discomfort at the homeschool playgroup when a child from my daughter's set of friends brings a plastic toy.  Jetta and Jade are desperate, like they are starved for a major food group, and it takes a lot of unsuccessful coaxing on my part to get them to not hover and obsess.  Eventually, the other child often opts to just put it away.

We have plastic toys.  And we have a lot of toys in general.  They are not deprived in anyway.  But there is an underlying craving that my girls have because they don't have plastic in mass quantities.  Well, this morning at 5:15am (why am I awake at this hour?) I want to start with the flip side of the coin.  What's wrong with natural toys?  That's the easy part.

What's wrong with natural toys?

1.  They aren't cheap.  No argument there.  They cost more to make, cost more to buy, cost more to ship because most of us aren't buying them at the local big box store.  And for most parents, it never gets past this point.  How many of us have money to use natural toys exclusively?

2.  They don't relate to the characters and themes that are in popular media.  The more tv your kids watch, the bigger a deal this will be.  And let me tell you, this can be a HUGE deal.  Huge!

3.  They don't garner the same peer acceptance that popular toys have.  This may seem superficial, but let's remember that we are innately social mammals and it is in our interest of survival to seek peer acceptance and community living.  Why else would I jump off a bridge if my friends did it? 

4.  They don't all look real.  And for most kids, this can be a hang up.  If you had a stick figure vs a Waldorf doll, the Waldorf doll would be preferred.  If you have a Waldorf doll and a plastic baby doll with eyes that open and shut, that laughs when you tickle it, that pees when you feed it, well, yeah, you get the picture.  Roll-playing is our kids' work, so they take it seriously.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way . . .

Let's talk about the other side of it.  We'll come back to those pesky flaws of natural toys in a bit.

What's wrong with plastic toys?  This is where I take a deep breath and sigh.  Do I want to just go with it, list the stuff I know to be true, or actually give you more to think about with links and references?  I know references are better, but honestly I'm worried about what I'll find.  I'm one of those parents that can't ignore another carcinogen being added to the list.  But let's see what we dig up anyway, and you may have to hold my hand through it.

Over at Green Gifts Guide they explain that most plastic toys contain PVC and that PVC contains harmful chemicals (for your child and for the environment).  This is the short list:

Phthalates - endocrine disruptor!  Concerns:  hormone imbalance, breast cancer, damage to liver and testes, obesity

Cadmium - known carcinogen!  Concerns:  abnormal brain growth, kidney damage, pneumonitis, pulmonary edema, death

Lead - effects the nervous system!  Concerns:  lowered IQ, ADHD, weakness in extremities, brain and kidney damage, miscarriage, infertility, death  (recent legislation limits lead quantities in toys, but toys that are older may still contain high quantities, and unethical violation of this limit surely happens at least occasionally)

To add to this list, Washington Toxics Coalition shares that dioxin (known carcinogen) is released through PVC processing (manufacturing, house fires, trash burning, recycling).  Every life form (that includes us!) is influenced by toxins in the environment.  The concerns for dioxin include:  death, cancer, reproductive problems, developmental problems, tooth development, sexual development.

But wait.  There's more.  Workers who work with PVC or around PVC are exposed to vinyl chloride, another lovely chemical that is a known carcinogen, and can cause death, cancer, liver damage, and liver injury in short-term exposure.  Washington Toxics Coalition also says that because of these and other heavy metals included in the production of PVC, "recycling is nearly impossible for most PVC products and interferes with the recycling of other plastics." 

Before you start feeling optimistic, remember that we didn't even talk about flame retardants.

Are you still holding my hand?  Got any tissues for me? 

I can hear somebody's mother saying "I played with plastic toys and I'm fine."  She might be the only one that is. 

The Back Story

This is getting long, so I'll keep this short.  I was widowed when I was 29.  My first husband was 32.  What did he die of?  Cancer. 

My aunt died of brain cancer.  My cousin died of bile duct cancer.  My dad died of liver failure and cancer.  My beloved mother died of bile duct cancer (yes, same rare cancer as my cousin, though no blood relation). 

I am not the mother who can tread these issues lightly. 

The Bottom Line

Keep in mind that the younger your child is, the greater a challenge and threat these chemicals are.  It's not just an issue of exposure (teething ring in mouth vs Barbie in hands), but an issue of your child's body being able to eliminate toxins successfully.  The healthier your child is, the stronger her liver will be and the more adept at removing toxins she'll be.

But that's little comfort in times like these.

As I stumble through the day knowing that at some point my child will either eat food that came out of plastic packaging, have a plastic arm from a plastic doll in her mouth, bathe in water that flowed through PVC pipes, or simply sit in a plastic car seat, I'm left to ask, "What can I control?"

Right now, what do you have control of?  What can  you choose for your family, and what can you not?  That's where we have to take action and implement whatever safety for our children that we can.  But it's also where we have to teach our children.  It's not enough to be paranoid.  They need to know what the low-down is on plastic too.  They need to have a voice in the matter, but we need to trust them to also BE a voice and take the role of stewardship of the Earth and their own health when they can.  Children are impressionable, but they are also receptive to truth.  And they believe whatever their parents tell them.  When your child is old enough for these conversations, and only you and your child know when that is, you have the opportunity to share what you know to be true and empower him with knowledge and choice.  The sooner they get it, the sooner the world changes.

What's the plastic scene like in your house?  What's your perspective about natural toys?  And how does your child feel about it?

Look for an action plan and ideas on how to deal with plastic toys in your home in Part 2 of this article.  Update:  go here to read Part 2 of this discussion on plastic toys!


  1. excellent information and well written. Plastic is a huge health concern and one we each need to address in our homes, in our lives, and oh my, in the mouths and hands of our children.
    Walk in beauty.

    1. Crowing Crone, thanks so much for your comment. You're right, plastic is a huge health concern! I hope we can all begin to not just raise awareness, but speak with our dollars and cents when it comes to how we influence what goes on in the world. That's a start, at least!