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Choose nontoxic plastic toys

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Checking recycling code labels on plastic toys can tell you what chemicals the plastic contains, and therefore which toys to avoid, ensuring that the product you buy will not endanger the environment or your child’s health. Plus, some plastics are more readily recyclable than others, so you'll want to watch out for that, too.

How to choose nontoxic plastic toys

Turn that new plastic item over before you plunk down your cash.

Plastic products are labeled using the resin identification coding system developed by the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. (SPI). To locate these codes, look for a single number surrounded by three chasing arrows that form a triangle, usually on the bottom of a plastic product. Here are the seven codes, as provided by the American Chemistry Council:

  • Resin code 1: PET: Polyethylene Terephthalate, nicknamed polyesterResin code: This image shows what the resin identification symbol on a plastic product will look like.
  • Resin code 2: HDPE: High Density Polyethylene
  • Resin code 3: PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride, also called vinyl
  • Resin code 4: LDPE: Low Density Polyethylene
  • Resin code 5: PP: Polypropylene
  • Resin code 6: PS: Polystryene
  • Resin code 7: OTHER: This code is used to label products made with a resin not already categorized, or a combination of the resins listed above.[1]

Those marked with a #3 are PVC plastic containing potentially harmful phthalates, and those marked with a #7 may contain polycarbonate plastic, which is made with dangerous Bisphenol A (BPA).

You can also check toy packaging for the label "ASTM." This label indicates that the American Society for Testing and Materials has found that the toy meets national safety standards, and therefore should not contain toxic chemicals.

Choosing nontoxic plastic toys helps you go green because…

  • You avoid purchasing products that contain chemicals that pollute the air, water, and earth in their production, use, and disposal.
  • You avoid purchasing plastics that are not easily recycled.
  • Avoiding plastics that contain dangerous toxins can protect the health of those who use the product and the environment around them.

Resin code 3 identifies plastic toys that are made from PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, also known as vinyl.[1] PVC is one of the most toxic of all materials used to make children’s toys,[2] yet it is used commonly to make teethers, squeeze toys, beach balls, bath toys, and dolls.[3] The United States alone produces 10 billion pounds of PVC each year.[4]

PVC contaminates air and water from production to disposal with potent carcinogens called dioxins.[3] Most of the concern about PVC centers on toxic additives called phthalates, which are added to the plastic to “plasticize” or soften it.[5] Phthalates do not bond to plastic, but can leach out, contaminating the surrounding environment, whether that be the soil of a landfill or the mouth of a child.

Other toxic additives in PVC include lead and cadmium, both of which can be released into the environment during production and in the disposal of a product.[2] Both lead and the vinyl chloride used to make PVC have contaminated the water, air, and ground around plants where PVC is produced.[4] PVC is also less recyclable than other plastics because it contains so many additives and does not have a uniform composition. This burdens recycling operations to sort out PVC plastic, and means that it is the least recycled of the major plastics used, according to Greenpeace. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that less than .5 percent of total post-consumer PVC was recycled in 1994.[4]

Resin code 7 includes polycarbonate plastic, which is made from Bisphenol A. Bisphenol A leaches out of plastic products, contaminating the environment with properties that have been found to cause health problems in humans.[6]

Related health issues

Because children are smaller and are therefore less able to process chemicals than adults, they are especially sensitive to environmental toxins.[7] The World Health Organization has stated that vinyl chloride is a carcinogen.[4] The National Toxicology Program also recently labeled the dioxins released from PVC plastic as "known human carcinogens," and studies have shown that they may cause reproductive problems.[8] Phthalates in PVC can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system, particularly the developing testes, according to animal studies.[9] In fact, Europe banned phthalates in plastic toys in 2005, citing the toxic chemicals’ carcinogenic, mutagenic, and reprotoxic effects.[10] Lead, which is added to PVC, causes nerve damage.[4]

Bisphenol A (BPA), used in polycarbonate plastic, has been linked to hormone disruption in rats, to increased breast cancer and prostate cancer cell growth, to early onset puberty, and obesity.[11] Other studies have found that bisphenol A can lead to attention disorders, behavior alterations, disrupted insulin regulation (which can lead to diabetes), chromosomal damage in females’ eggs, reduced sperm count, and infertility.[12]

External links


  • Bisphenol A (BPA): Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical building block used to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. Studies have linked BPA to hormone disruption, increased breast and prostate cancer cell growth, and early onset puberty, and obesity.
  • carcinogens: Any substance that causes cancer.
  • dioxins: Dioxins are extremely persistent chemical compounds that are created inadvertently by human activities like incineration and fuel combustion. Dioxins break down slowly so they persist in the environment for many years. Exposure to dioxins may cause adverse health effects, such as cancer, reproductive and developmental disorders, and skin disease.
  • phthalates: Phthalates are additives that are widely used in plastics and other materials, mainly to make them soft and flexible. They have applications in industry, in medicine and in consumer products. There is public concern about phthalates because of their widespread use and occurrence in the environment. Phthalates can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system, particularly the developing testes, according to animal studies.
  • polyvinyl chloride (PVC): A plastic, commonly referred to as vinyl, that is dangerous to human health and the environment throughout its life cycle. When produced or burned, PVC plastic releases dioxins, which can cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems. PVC also releases mercury and phthalates, which may pose irreversible life-long health threats. PVC is often used to make teethers, bath toys, and other toys that young children play with, and often place in their mouths.