Children often play with second-hand toys at nurseries and in waiting rooms. As long as the toys are clean, people tend to consider them safe, but new research might make you think twice.

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A new study looks for toxic elements in old toys.

Dr. Andrew Turner and colleagues, from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, recently studied hundreds of children's toys to assess what chemicals they might be harboring. The results are sobering.

Buying toys from thrift stores or passing them down from older siblings or friends is common. But there may be more risk attached than previously thought.

Over the years, research has shown that metals and metalloids, which are metal-like elements, can negatively impact health, even at fairly low doses. They are dangerous for all age groups, but particularly so for children because their metabolism is running at a higher rate and they are growing quickly.

Also, because children often put toys in their mouths, the risk is increased further. To ensure that new toys are safe, guidelines for their manufacture have slowly evolved to keep up.

However, although there are laws that keep new toys aligned with safety codes, old toys are not covered by the same statutes. So, as laws change, older toys still in circulation — at yard sales, doctors' waiting rooms, or a relative's toy cupboard — slip under the radar.

Investigating old plastic toys

Today, people are wary of older toys if, for instance, they have paint flaking off of them, but plastic toys are much more durable and generally considered safe. In some cases, it is difficult to tell how old they are.

Very little research has gone into testing second-hand toys for toxic compounds, and the studies that do exist are limited. Earlier experiments did not test how much of the harmful compounds might come from the plastic when the toy is chewed or ingested.

To fill this gap, Dr. Turner and team embarked on a more thorough investigation of second-hand toys. They assessed 200 toys taken from homes, nurseries, and thrift stores in the South West of England. According to Dr. Turner, this study was the "first systematic investigation of hazardous elements in second-hand plastic toys in the U.K."

The toys included trains, cars, figures — such as plastic dinosaurs — and puzzles, and they were all of a size and shape that could be chewed by children.

As in previous studies, the researchers used X-ray fluorescence to examine the chemistry of the toys, and they also carried out tests that simulated how the toys might respond in the stomach.

Their findings were published recently in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Toxic elements in children's toys

The results are concerning. In many of the toys, the researchers found traces of elements such as antimony, barium, bromine, cadmium, chromium, lead, and selenium.

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Here is just a handful of the children's toys that were used in the study.
Image credit: Dr. Andrew Turner, University of Plymouth

Over time, all of the above can be toxic. Often, these chemicals were found in toys that were yellow, red, or black.

In a further test, where the toys were introduced to dilute hydrochloric acid (which is found in the stomach), some released dangerous quantities of bromine, cadmium, or lead.

Medical News Today spoke with Dr. Turner and asked whether or not the results surprised him. "There are a couple of articles published in the U.S.," he explained, "that revealed high levels of lead in some older toys, so we weren't surprised about the occurrence of lead."

"The amount of cadmium in many red and yellow toys was surprising, as was the widespread occurrence of bromine, an indicator of flame retardants, in black toys."

Dr. Andrew Turner

MNT asked Dr. Turner why he decided to study children's toys. He said, "We started investigating second-hand toys as part of a larger project that investigated restricted chemicals in all sorts of new and old consumer goods."

In earlier work, he found that decorated drinking glasses sometimes contain unsafe levels of lead and cadmium, and that playground paints can harbor dangerous quantities of lead, chromium, antimony, and cadmium.

The new results are worrying, and Dr. Turner plans to continue along this path. He told us about the slightly new direction he plans to take, saying, "We hope to spend more time and research looking at the problem of old and new black plastic toys and other black plastic consumer goods, which appear to have been recycled illegally from old electrical waste."

It looks as though more interesting — and alarming — results are soon to follow.