Toxic children’s toys could be playing with your fertility chances
A trading standards alert has been issued across the UK over concerns about toxic chemicals in children’s toys. These chemicals can have long-term effects on children’s health, and they could even affect their fertility for years to come.
Why are the toys dangerous?
Some toys contain toxic chemicals called phthalates, which are plastic additives. Phthalates are used to soften plastic and make it more durable.
These chemicals are difficult to avoid, as they are used in a wide variety of products including detergents, shampoos, and food packaging. But studies have shown that they are linked to a number of health problems.
Why are phthalates harmful?
Phthalates have been linked to many health conditions
Phthalates are mutagenic and carcinogenic, which means that they cause mutations and cancers. They are also endocrine disruptors, because they interfere with the body’s hormones.
Phthalates can cause a range of problems in the body, such as increasing the risk of developing breast cancer [1. López-Carrillo L, Hernández-Ramírez RU, Calafat AM, Torres-Sánchez L, Galván-Portillo M, Needham LL, Ruiz-Ramos R, Cebrián ME. Exposure to phthalates and breast cancer risk in northern Mexico. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2010. 118(4): 539-44]. Phthalates have also been linked to problems with childhood development, in particular problems with language [2. Bornehag CG, Lindh C, Reichenberg A, Wikström S, Unenge Hallerback M, Evans SF, Sathyanarayana S, Barrett ES, Nguyen RHN, Bush NR, Swan SH. Association of prenatal phthalate exposure with language development in early childhood. JAMA Pediatrics. 2018. 172(12): 1169-1176] and cognition [3. Huang HB, Chen HY, Su PH, Huang PC, Sun CW, Wang CJ, Chen HY, Hsiung CA, Wang SL. Fetal and childhood exposure to phthalate diesters and cognitive function in children up to 12 years of age: Taiwanese maternal and infant cohort study. PLOS One. 2015. 10(6): e0131910].
Additionally scientists have shown a relationship between high phthalate levels and a greater risk of obesity [4. Kim SH, Park MJ. Phthalate exposure and childhood obesity. Annals of Pediatric Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2014. 19(2): 69-75]. The chemicals may also contribute towards many cases of asthma, allergy and wheeze [5. Robinson L, Miller R. The impact of bisphenol A and phthalates on asthma, allergy and immune function: a review of latest findings. Current Environmental Health Reports. 2015. 2(4): 379-387].
Phthalates can have many harmful effects during pregnancy
Phthalates can have significant effects on fertility. These chemicals can do this by interfering with the development of reproductive organs.
One key marker of male genital tract development in newborn babies is called the anogenital distance (AGD). This is the distance between the anus and the genitals, and a short AGD can have a number of consequences for fertility both in the short and long-term.
A short AGD is linked to problems such as cryptorchidism, which is when the testicles do not descend into the scrotum. A short AGD in adult men is also associated with reduced testosterone levels and lower semen quality.
Scientists found a link between exposure to phthalates in the first trimester of pregnancy and a shorter AGD in newborn boys [6. Swan SH, Sathyanarayana S, Barrett ES, Janssen S, Liu F, Nguyen RHN, Redmon JB. First trimester phthalate exposure and anogenital distance in newborns. Human Reproduction. 2015. 30(4): 963-972]. This suggests that babies and young children are potentially very sensitive to phthalates, but more research is needed to clarify these effects.
Additionally, scientists have found a relationship between high phthalate levels and a higher risk of experiencing a miscarriage [7. Messerlian C, Wylie BJ, Minguez-Alarcon L, Williams PL, Ford JB, Souter IC, Calafat AM, Hauser R. Urinary concentrations of phthalate metabolites in relation to pregnancy loss among women conceiving with medically assisted reproduction. Epidemiology. 2016. 27(6): 879-888]. Another study has also found that phthalates can increase the risk of a mother developing gestational diabetes [8. James-Todd TM, Meeker JD, Huang T, Hauser R, Ferguson KK, Rich-Edwards JW, McElrath TF, Seely EW. Pregnancy urinary phthalate metabolite concentrations and gestational diabetes risk factors. Environment International. 2016. 96: 118-126].
Gestational diabetes is a condition during pregnancy when a woman has high blood sugar levels. It can cause many problems including premature delivery if it is not managed properly.
Phthalates are especially worrying for children
Many phthalates are found in children’s toys and childcare products. This is particularly concerning, because children are more likely to put these products into their mouths and chew them. This means that their exposure to any harmful chemicals in the products will be higher, putting the health of many children at risk.
Aren’t phthalates regulated?
EU and national regulations are in place to restrict phthalates in products. In the USA the FDA and EPA restrict the use of these chemicals.
But despite this, high quantities of phthalates are still finding their way onto the UK high street. Many of the children’s toys affected come from China and other parts of Asia, where manufacturing regulations are less stringent.
There have been concerns in the UK
The Chartered Trading Standards Institute issued an alert stating that there was a rise in the numbers of unsafe toys which were of substandard quality, particularly over Christmas. This was following the news that a wholesaler in Nottingham was under investigation for selling children’s dolls containing unacceptably high levels of phthalates.
The dolls were priced between £1 and £3, and there were no details available on which shops sold these products or how many of them were purchased by customers. Therefore the full scale of this problem is unknown.
How can I tell if a toy might contain toxic chemicals?
It can be difficult to tell the substandard toys apart from safe toys. This is because they might look very similar to popular children’s characters, and they may even copy the design and logos of official merchandise.
But one key sign to look out for is quality marks on the packaging. If there are no quality marks, the toy may not have gone through rigorous testing processes. This means that it may contain high levels of toxic chemicals such as phthalates, or it could even be hazardous in other ways such as being a choking risk.
Make sure you also have a closer look at the packaging of the toys, as many of the harmful dolls had packaging which was written in poor English. This is a sign that the product has been made in a disreputable factory abroad.
Substandard toys are also unusually cheap, and the dolls affected in this case costed between £1 and £3. Be careful if the price sounds too good to be true.
Phthalates are chemicals which are found in numerous everyday products. Recent studies have uncovered the worrying effects that phthalates can have on our bodies, and developing babies are particularly sensitive to these chemicals.
Scientists are continuing to investigate the effects of phthalates. But until we know more about these chemicals, it is important to protect children from being exposed to high levels of phthalates. Make sure any toys and childcare products you buy look reputable, and avoid any suspicious looking products.