Plastic not fantastic

The danger of certain types of plastic has been public knowledge for a while now, but there’s still no clear ban on potentially harmful toys.

In August 2008, former US president George Bush signed a ban on sales of phthalate-containing toys. At more or less the same time, the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) called on our government to ban these potentially toxic toys. But so far, no action has been taken.

As a result, hundreds of phthalate-containing toys and other childcare articles are sold in South Africa every day. Phthalates are plasticisers used to soften plastic articles such as bath rubber duckies and infant teethers. These chemicals are also widely used in medical devices and other household articles.

"Soft plastic toys are made of two things: plastic (such as polyvinyl chloride/PVC) and plasticisers," explains Dr Carl Albrecht, Head of Research at CANSA. "Manufacturers add plasticisers to prevent toys from being rock hard."

Children are particularly at risk for exposure to the potentially toxic chemicals in plastic, says Albrecht. He explains that the liver enzymes of children aren't fully developed, which means their bodies are less efficient at getting rid of toxins. Children generally also have more direct contact with plasticisers. For example, and toddlers often put soft plastic toys in their mouths.

Although some international authorities argue that the levels of plastics chemicals to which children are exposed are negligent, Albrecht says this idea is naïve. "Researchers have found that phthalate-injected mice had the same blood levels of the chemical as mice who received the toxins orally," he says. While this experiment hasn't been done in humans yet, Albrecht believes this certainly doesn't bode well. "We're particularly concerned about toys aimed at children under the age of three."

South Africans have no way of knowing whether toys sold locally contain phthalates, as it isn't mandatory to indicate its presence on labels. Phthalates are one of the main contaminants in China, and we import many of our toys from there.

What to do

David Hughes, executive director of the Plastics Federation of South Africa (PFSA) advises that concerned parents take the following steps:
  • Refrain from buying PVC toys and other PVC childcare items for babies and toddlers.
  • Ask retailers for non-PVC toys and articles. Alternatives include toys made from polyethylene, polyurethane and polypropylene.
  • Be particularly cautious about buying toys that have been imported from the Far East.
For more about the potential harmful effects of plastics, visit Health 24.

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