Plastics are pervasive in our environment and are the source of unprecedented pollution in our water, food, and now our children’s bodies. Scientific reports show the dangers synthetic chemicals in plastics pose to children’s health; and why manufacturers cannot stop using them.
According to two recent reports released by the EU-based groups, Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL) and the Regional Activity Centre for Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP/RAC), are among the first large-scale efforts to illustrate plastic pollution not only as an environmental threat but also as a problem of chemical safety affecting children in particular.
Disruption of the Human Endocrine System
The undeniable problem of plastic pollution is compounded by the synthetic chemicals found within plastics. Often referred to as “additives,” these chemicals can easily leach from plastic products into the surrounding environment. Due to the widespread use of plastic products in our homes, additives have been detected in most people, including children.
The EU reports highlight that the most commonly used plastic additives belong to hazardous chemical families like flame retardants, phthalates, bisphenols, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS. Brominated flame retardants, bisphenol-A, most commonly known as BPA, and phthalates, are all associated with disruption of the human endocrine system, which regulates hormones, and are linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer, congenital disabilities, and reduced fertility. These toxic additives are found in furniture, personal care products, and of course, toys that toddlers and children often put in their mouths.
The problem of Chemical Safety
While toxic additives have been detected in everyday plastic consumer products, plastic products marketed towards children are of particular concern since infants and children are more vulnerable to chemical exposures. Some phthalates linked to reproductive and neurodevelopmental harm in children comprise up to 40% of some plastic children’s toys’ total dry weight. Heavy metals and other toxic additives were also detected in plastic Halloween costumes and decorations. As HEAL stated in their report:
“The problem of plastics is the problem of chemical safety.”
Early-life exposure to brominated flame retardants (BFRs), for example, has been linked to attention deficits and poor social competence in children. And PFAS, forever chemicals that have tainted the water of millions of Americans, could suppress the antibody response in children, a critical mechanism for developing immunity against infectious diseases like COVID-19. Regulatory agencies in the United States, including the EPA and FDA, have failed to implement adequate safeguards to reduce exposure to plastic additives across all stages of the plastics lifecycle.
Potentially Higher Exposure
From a physiological aspect, gastrointestinal absorption is more remarkable in infants. Their food, liquid, and air intake are higher relative to their body weight, increasing their absorption of certain chemicals. Despite their increased ability to ingest chemicals, they have a reduced detoxification capacity and can’t break down and eliminate chemicals and adults; the storage and distribution of chemicals in children’s organs is much greater.
Additionally, the blood-brain barrier (responsible for limiting chemicals in the blood from entering the brain) develops as we mature, resulting in potentially higher exposure to chemicals in the blood in younger children. Behaviorally, babies and children spend a lot more time on the floor, lying on mats, and are always putting objects and fingers in the mouth, which increases their exposure to lots of different types of chemicals.
What Are The Most Dangerous Things To Look Out For And Why?
- Plastics (Phthalates and BPA/BPF/BPS) – In children’s toys, costume jewelry, and clothing
- Lead & Cadmium – Costume jewelry and found in paint on wooden toys
- Flame Retardants – Soft toys, clothing, bedding, plastic toys, and wooden toys
- Formaldehydes – Soft toys, wooden toys, and some fabrics
- Dyes – Clothing, bedding, electronic toys, and plastic toys
- Fragrance – some children’s clothing, cosmetics, toys, and stationery
- NEPs (Nonylphenol Ethoxylates) – Clothing, bedding, and soft toys
- Boron – Slime and jelly-like or squishy textured toys.
While each substance’s chemical complications vary, all of these chemicals have been associated with adverse health outcomes. What’s scary to me is that despite the limited amount of research that has been done on these chemicals, especially on children as a particularly vulnerable population, the links that have been made are significant. Collectively the chemicals found in many children’s toys and clothing have been linked to cancer, fertility issues in boys and girls, thyroid disruption, and developmental problems, including brain damage and lower IQ scores.
1. Safer Options
Instead of buying lots of toys for your children or relatives, organize an experience or activity instead. Experiences can be enjoyed by the whole family and usually involve getting active and outside. You will have the memories forever and no waste.
2. Get creative with your kids.
Homemade gifts for cousins, friends, or themselves to play with are free of chemicals and give them something to do on a rainy weekend. I recently made homemade ‘slime’ with the kids using this recipe, and they loved it.
3. Find safer options
Many smaller businesses open that specializes in eco-friendly and safe toys, clothing, and personal care products. My favorites are Eco Child, Hello-Charlie, Little Earth Nest, and Nourished Life.
4. Wash it first
If your children receive clothing, textiles, or toys as gifts, wash it in natural detergent first to make sure there are not high levels of chemicals on the products.
For instance, car seats are loaded with flame retardants to meet the same federal motor flammability standards as the cars they’re strapped into. But since most car fires start in the engine, flame retardants won’t help once a fire reaches the passenger compartment. There’s fear that kids who eat in their car seats may get a helping of flame retardants with their Cheerios.
Jennifer Garfinkel, a spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade group, defended the use of flame retardants in car seats. She wrote in an email:
“Maintaining fire safety in vehicles is essential […], and flame retardants are an appropriate method to improve fire safety in such applications, according to the federal government’s flammability requirements.”
With worldwide plastic production expected to double over the next 20 years, the EPA and legislators must force the industry to curb output, stop pollution in communities that live next to petrochemical plants, and make sure that chemical safety is at the top of the agenda.