But study indicates that making clean consumer products is technically and economically feasible

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Feature Story - 2011-12-07
The metals measured in this study can have a variety of harmful impacts. Infants and children have disproportionately heavy exposure to many environmental agents because they drink more water, eat more food and breathe more air per unit body weight compared to adults; children's metabolic pathways especially in fetal life and in the first months after birth, are immature; developmental processes are easily disrupted during rapid growth and development before and after birth; and children have more years of future life and thus more time to develop diseases initiated by early exposures.

Toxic toys in China

About the metals




The USA State of California classifies antimony trioxide as a carcinogen.[1] Animal studies show that exposure to antimony causes skin irritation, fertility problems, and lung cancer.[2]


Inorganic arsenic is a known human carcinogen with links to lung, skin, and bladder cancers.[3] Arsenic exposure is correlated with lower IQ in children.[4]


Cadmium is a known human carcinogen and associated with cancers of the breast, kidney, lung, pancreas, prostate and urinary bladder.[5] The State of California recognizes cadmium as a reproductive toxicant.[6] [7]


XRF does not distinguish between the two common forms of chromium; chromium III and chromium VI. Chromium III is an essential element in humans but can display moderate toxicity in acute animal tests.[8] Chromium VI is a known human carcinogen.[9] Lab studies link chromium VI to birth defects and reproductive problems.[10]


Lead is a well-known neurotoxicant with no safe level of exposure.[11] The harms from childhood lead exposure are irreversible and persist into adolescence and adulthood.[12] Lead impacts include learning disabilities; attention deficits; disorders in a child's coordination, visual, spatial and language skills, and anemia.[13]


Mercury is a well-known neurotoxicant. The developing nervous system is especially vulnerable to damage from mercury and exposure can lead to loss of IQ, abnormal muscle tone, and losses in motor function, attention, and visual – spatial performance.[14]



China's 'Limit of harmful substances in toys' coating', which took effect in Oct 2010, limits the overall concentration of lead in toys to 600 ppm. A more protective total concentration standard of 90 ppm lead is used in the US and Canada. The Chinese regulation also provides 'soluble limits' for eight toxic heavy metals in toys. The limits are similar to the somewhat weak regulatory policies used in the US and the EU that also use the 'extractable elements' approach. This approach requires an extensive preparation procedure to extract metals from certain size particles of a children's product into an acid solution to attempt to imitate the acidic environment of the stomach.

However, the approach overlooks the possibility that children can be exposed to metals in consumer products via other exposure pathways and therefore underestimates the possible harm. In addition, the "extractable elements" approach requires more time and cost than testing total concentration, undermining the efficiency of regulators and private sector personnel. Currently, regulatory standards for lead in consumer products tend to use a "total concentration" approach which simply determines the mg lead per kg product.

Expanding the "total concentration" approach to other metals could help streamline the regulation of toxic metals in children's products and provide more safety if protective limits are used.

Additional contacts and resources

[1] State of California (2003), Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Chemicals known to the State to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity; http://oehha.ca.gov/prop65/prop65_list/files/31403LSTA.pdf

[2] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (1992) Toxicological profile for antimony and compounds, US Public Health Service http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/ToxProfiles/TP.asp?id=332&tid=58

[3] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (1992) Toxicological profile for arsenic, US Public Health Service http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/ToxProfiles/TP.asp?id=22&tid=3

[4] Dong J, Su SY (2009) The association between arsenic and children's intelligence: a meta analysis, Biol Trace Elem Res 129:88 - 93

[5] Huff J, Lunn RM, Waalkes MP, Tomatis L, Infante PF (2007) Cadmium-induced cancers in animals and humans, Int J Occup Environ Health 13:202 - 212

[11] US Centers for Disease Control (2005). Prevention of lead poisoning in young children: a statement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Atlanta, GA USA: CDC; 2005, www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/publications/prevleadpoisoning.pdf; (2002) Managing elevated blood lead levels among young children: recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention. Atlanta, GA: CDC; 2002.  www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/casemanagement/casemanage_main.htm

[12] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2006) Air Quality Criteria for Lead (September 29, 2006)

[13] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2006) Air Quality Criteria for Lead (September 29, 2006)

WHO (2004) Burden of disease attributable to selected environmental factors and injuries among Europe's children and adolescents http://www.who.int/quantifying_ehimpacts/publications/9241591900/en/index.html

Review of Scientific Information on Lead (2008), developed by UNEP in response to Governing Council Decisions 23/9 and 22/4 (draft November 2008)

[14] Landrigan PJ, Schecter CB, Lipton JM, Fahs MC, Schwartz J (2002) Environmental Pollutants and Disease in American Children: Estimates of Morbidity, Mortality, and Costs for Lead Poisoning, Asthma, Cancer, and Developmental Disabilities, Environ Health Perspect 110: doi:10.1289/ehp.02110721 http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1289/ehp.02110721

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