Toy safety

While one baby in particular has grabbed global headlines recently, on the other side of the world comes a fantastic piece of news for parents from Beijing to Buckingham Palace. On July 1, China notified the World Trade Organisation (WTO) about two new standards of toy safety. One of these standards severely restricts the use of six phthalates in children's toys, a move that sees China apply an equal level of restrictions to those in the European Union.

Phthalates are mainly used as plastic softeners. They exist in a large variety of products, from toys to food packages and textiles. Scientific studies have found that they can have negative effects on the body (they can be easily absorbed through the skin) and can cause hormone malfunctions and deformities in male reproductive organs. Unborn children and infants are particularly susceptible to phthalate exposure.

As Greenpeace campaigners based in the world's largest toy producing country, we have been waiting for this news for more than two years. For Greenpeace as a whole, our campaign against phthalates in toys extends back almost two decades.

Since 1997 Greenpeace has been raising awareness about phthalates in toys. The "Play Safe" Campaign in Canada, Europe and the US was a catalyst for raising awareness about the dangerous plastic softeners. Two years into this campaign, the European Commission responded by approving "a packet of legislative proposals" towards banning the use of phthalates in soft toys.

As our campaign and investigations continued, the EU finally banned the use of the phthalates in children's toys in 2004. More importantly, very recently,  the EU chemical regulatory body (ECHA) and member states are now aiming for a total phase-out of the most critical phthalates.

In China though the struggle against phthalates continued. In 2011, my colleagues were involved in a major "toy hunt". We bought all kinds of plastic toys from China's biggest cities and had them tested for hazardous chemicals.

The results were shocking: 70% of the plastic toys contained high levels of phthalates; levels that would see these products pulled off the shelves in the EU or the US. But Chinese domestic standards were weak. For example, the Chinese restriction on phthalates only covered toy coating, leaving other parts of a toy completely unregulated.

Our investigation received wide coverage inside and outside of China and just a few days after the release of our report, China’s central quality inspection agency reacted directly to the public outcry in the form of a Q&A on their website.

In the Q&A, even though government experts disputed the actual harm of phthalates (which we didn't agree with), they also promised to set up a new standard of toy safety to restrict the use of phthalates. This kind of policy announcement triggered purely by public concern was definitely not a "norm" in China, so we were hopeful.

But hope soon turned to anxiety, as a lack of follow-up action was met with a swathe of bad news stories. First, phthalates were discovered in drinks in Taiwan. Then, our investigations uncovered yet more phthalates in clothing and in common household dust, after which Chinese authorities found phthalates in well-known liquors.

Now two years later, this ban finally marks the first real turn of events curtailing the use of phthalates. Yes, this time it’s just toys, but it means that when these regulations come into force in a few months time, more children will be better protected from this group of toxic chemicals.

We can celebrate a small victory for our kids, but we will also continue to work towards our goal of eliminating all hazardous chemicals from our environment, our bodies and our collective future. After all, as we tell our children: "The best is yet to come."

Take action

Our investigations have revealed that clothing items bought from major brands including Tommy Hilfiger, Armani and GAP contain a number of hazardous chemicals, including phthalates. Join the global movement of fashionistas, activists, designers, bloggers and models calling for toxic-free future by signing the Detox Fashion Manifesto today.

Selena Du is a Toxics Campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia.