PVC in Toys: How to Avoid the “Poison Plastic”

Plastic toys are a popular choice because they are affordable and easy to find. But the more we learn about certain chemicals in plastic has parents asking whether PVC toys are safe.

are pvc toys safe

Their bright colors and interesting shapes and textures please children as much as their affordable prices and durability appeal to adults. The only problem is that many plastic toys are made from materials that can be harmful to children. And knowing that really takes the fun out of them.

“The Poison Plastic”

Polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC, is a particularly troublesome material. It is just one of several types of plastics commonly used to make toys and child care items.

Others include polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and polyurethane (PU) foam. But PVC deserves special attention because of how widespread it is — the third-largest commodity plastic in the world — and what it contains. There is good reason why it has been nicknamed “the poison plastic,” according to Healthy Child Healthy World

In pure form, PVC is odorless, hard, and brittle and does not work very well when exposed to heat or light. It requires additives to improve its performance, which often include phthalates, a category of chemicals that softens PVC and makes it more pliable.

PVC then becomes highly versatile, ideal for toys and school supplies like

  • some foam play mats
  • plastic dolls
  • some stacking rings and cups
  • inflatable pool toys, beach balls, and floaties
  • bath toys like rubber ducks and waterproof books
  • action figures and Barbie dolls
  • teething rings
  • yoga balls
  • synthetic erasers
  • backpacks
  • lunch boxes
  • three-ring binders
  • pencil cases
  • notebooks
  • modeling clays
  • aprons and smocks
  • cling film for window art projects

The Dangers of Phthalates

Phthalates introduce a host of health concerns to anyone handling these toys or other items. They do not bind chemically to their plastic host, but rather float freely. This means they can be released through small cracks or breaks in a product — for example, when a child chews on a toy and scratches its surface. This allows the phthalate to evaporate or leach out, potentially entering the child’s body by way of their mouth.

Children are known to have higher exposure to phthalates than adults, and for their sensitive developing bodies, even low levels of exposure can be harmful. An assessment by the European Commission Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks reported that “the average exposure of children [to DEHP and other phthalates] is known to be approximately twice that of adults.”

This is attributed to babies and toddlers having more hand-to-mouth contact and spending more time sitting on the floor. They may be exposed to vinyl flooring, PVC play mats, or in proximity to accumulated dust that has been contaminated with phthalates from other household sources.

Phthalates are not something any parent wants in their child’s body. These chemicals are known hormone disruptors, impeding natural reproductive development. Exposure has been associated with infertility, low sperm counts and quality, genital malformations, preterm births, birth defects, and a propensity to asthma, obesity, and even lower IQ.

They are known to be toxic when they leach into the natural environmental, causing harm to amphibians and other aquatic species.

PVC Regulatory Efforts

Some regulatory efforts have been made to reduce children’s exposure to phthalates in PVC toys. In 2017, the United States’ Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a rule that banned the manufacture, import, or sale of children’s toys that contain more than 0.1% of certain phthalates, with some states like California and Washington creating even tighter rules.

The European Union has banned six phthalates in children’s toys, as has Canada, which restricted specific phthalates DEHP, DINP, DBP, BBP, DNOP, and DIDP in 2010. 

Keep in mind, though, that these do not cover all phthalates that exist, and that these regulations do not apply to toys or PVC-made items that are not targeted at children, hence the Canadian government’s recommendation not to “let a child suck or chew on soft plastic products that aren’t intended for children.” That is why consumers should still “be aware that some soft or flexible plastic products made with PVC may contain phthalates.” 

While it is possible to find phthalate-free PVC toys, it is safest to avoid them altogether. According to Toxic-Free Future, all PVC toys and school supplies should be avoided not just for the possible presence of phthalates, but also because they “create toxic threats in manufacturing and disposal.”

Other PVC Problems

That leads to another important point, which is that PVC’s questionable reputation is not due to presence of phthalates alone, but also to its other additives, manufacturing process, and disposal. Its main ingredient is vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen.

It is among the most commonly released industrial chemicals, used almost exclusively in plastics production. Vinyl chloride has been shown by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to leach into groundwater around manufacturing facilities and degrade air quality for nearby residents.

Additional ingredients in PVC are stabilizers such as cadmium, lead, and organotin, as well as toxic flame retardants — also less-than-ideal toy ingredients. PVC is difficult to recycle, too.

PVC is notorious for off-gassing, giving off that plasticky smell that you might associate with a new car or inflatable water toys.

A 2017 German study found three toxic chemical compounds in PVC arm bands used to keep children afloat in a swimming pool. The researchers found that children can absorb these compounds simply by smelling the arm bands’ rubbery odor; and as instinct would suggest, “The more pungent the smell, the higher the risk.” But even once that smell wears off, any damage or normal wear-and-tear can cause PVC gases to continue releasing.  

What Can a Parent Do?

Now you know the answer to the question, “Are PVC toys safe?” is a resounding, “No.” Here’s how you can avoid them or limit your child’s exposure to PVC.

Don’t buy PVC toys or items

Avoid PVC toys whenever possible. Check the triangular recycling symbol on the bottom. If there is a 3 in the middle, then you know it is made with PVC. If there is a V beneath the recycling number, that stands for vinyl and should also be avoided. Look for labels stating that a toy is PVC-free.

If considering other plastic products, avoid recycling numbers 6 (PS, polystyrene) and 7 (polycarbonate). Opt for the most stable plastics, which are numbers 2 (HDPE, high density polyethylene), 4 (LDPE, low density polyethylene), and 5 (PP, polypropylene). ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is known for its stability and impact resistance, which is why the LEGO company has been using it in place of PVC for all its building blocks since 1963. (ABS does not have a recycling number associated with it.)

Read labels carefully

If you must buy a PVC toy for any reason, look for ones with labels that state they are free from phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and styrene. This may indicate a toy manufacturer that is taking greater efforts to use cleaner, safer materials. Look for bioplastics, which are starting to replace PVC in some applications; these can be more expensive, due to limited supply and more expensive raw materials, but the higher price is worth the health savings and peace of mind.

Save plastic toys for older children

If your children have beloved toys made from PVC that they cannot bear to throw away, one option may be to remove them from infant or toddler rooms and save them for use by older children who are less inclined to put the toys in their mouths.

This may reduce the risk of chemical leaching and ingestion. Anything that could go in a child’s mouth should not be made from PVC, or, ideally, any type of plastic at all. 

Buy toys made from safer, natural materials

Seek out alternative materials, such as those made from wood, cloth, wool, metal, natural rubber, or paper. When buying soft dolls or other stuffed toys, ensure that the stuffing material is natural, too.

Speak up and ask questions

When in doubt, contact toy manufacturers directly to ask what their products are made of. The more parents who reach out, the more inclined these companies will be to improve their production standards.

Become an outspoken advocate for PVC-free toys and play spaces for kids. It is impossible to shop one’s way out of this situation and it is more useful to focus on shaping regulatory changes. Talk to your child’s daycare provider and school to encourage the adoption of a PVC-free policy.

Ask for PVC-free toys, school supplies, and green flooring such as natural linoleum. Contact local government representatives to put the pressure on for tighter regulations.

More on Choosing Safe Toys

Toys shouldn’t be toxic. Here are some resources to help you find safe and appropriate toys.

Non Toxic Guide to Baby Toys
The Benefits of Battery Free Toys for Kids
Safer Options to Plastic Toys
DIY and Upcycled Toy Projects
Are Battery Toys Bad for Babies?
Mindfulness Toys for Kids
The Art of Toy Rotation

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