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A New Way To Test Children’s’ Toys For Dangerous Chemicals

Handheld device can detect toxic chemicals hidden in toys

Bad recycling practices can contaminate children’s toys, embedding brominated flame retardants from recycled printers and computer casings into Rubix cubes and Barbie dolls. Unfortunately, testing toys for toxic chemicals (chief among them polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs) usually involves expensive, time-consuming laboratory tests. But a new study suggests we may soon be able to scan suspicious toys with a handheld device that detects bromine, antimony, and other elements that are often the telltale signs of PBDEs.

The study, published in Environmental Sciences: Processes & Impacts, tested the device on 26 toys and cup lids, and found evidence of brominated flame retardants in 61 percent. Although it is still unclear whether brominated compounds are indeed toxic, the study highlights the extent of bad recycling practices — and describes how a simple device could protect kids from PBDEs.

“This study confirms once again that inappropriate recycling practices may lead to contamination of consumer products such as children’s toys,” Andreas Buser of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (who was not involved in the study) told Chemistry World. “These pollutants need to be eliminated from recycling streams as quickly as possible.”

Contaminated recycled children’s toys are nothing new, and public health officials are well aware of the problem. The European Union recently updated its recommendations for recycling materials that contain PBDEs and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs). And the International POPs Elimination Network, representing 600 non-governmental organizations, has been working to eliminate organic pollutants in consumer products since 1998.

In 2015, IPEN tested 21 toys and found that nearly half were contaminated with toxic flame retardants that originate from electronic waste. Then, just a few months ago, they conducted a larger study and found contaminants in 90 percent of toys surveyed. “Ironically,” IPEN wrote in a statement. “The chemical contaminants that can damage the nervous system and reduce intellectual capacity are found in Rubik’s Cubes — a puzzle toy designed to exercise the mind.”

For this new study, Stuart Harrad and colleagues at the University of Birmingham designed a handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometer that can detect bromine and antimony — two elements that are seldom found together outside of flame retardants and PBDEs. They found that 61 percent of the toy samples tested contained bromine, and then confirmed that 45 percent had PDBE concentrations exceeding international limits. The main PDBE involved was acrylonitrite butadiene styrene (ABS), a chemical found in copying equipment, laptops, and computers.

Worse, the contamination likely does not stop with children’s toys, Harrad says. “We are starting to look into this in another project looking at kitchen utensils,” he told Chemistry World. “We are examining [how] brominated flame retardants transfer from utensils into hot cooking oil.”