Can even a child’s toy be dangerous?

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Toys are a special case when one has to estimate not only chemical risks but also other risks, because toys are used almost exclusively by small children, and they may use toys in a totally different way than could be imagined by any adults. Furthermore, their small bodies may be more sensitive to the toxic effects of chemicals. The safety of toys is regulated in seven detailed standards issued by the European Union.


Toys must not contain dangerous chemicals to the extent that they might jeopardise the health of children playing with them. Thus the use of carcinogenic substances in toys is totally forbidden, and maximum limits have been set for all dangerous chemicals. The basis for the health risk assessment is the possible intake of a chemical by a child.

In toys, the chemicals most likely to cause problems are nickel, heavy metals lead and cadmium, and phthalates. In principle, the risks of all of these chemicals are manageable according to the existing legislation. An example is a risk assessment conducted in the United States which assessed the risks of phthalates in toys, especially if the child puts them into her/his mouth and sucks the item. Phthalates such as di-isononylphthalate are used as plasticizers (softeners) in PVC plasticware. The assessment concluded that children are not exposed to the di-isononylphthalate to the extent that any health risks would be possible. Since market surveillance is rather haphazard, however, it is quite possible that there are toys on the market that do not fulfil the criteria.


There are two ways that authorities monitor toys. They may investigate some particular toy if they receive complaints and to some extent they also have a system of continuous monitoring. Currently this is a special challenge, because many toys are manufactured in the developing countries even though they may be marketed under well-established western trademarks.

In one Christmas sales period in Finland it was found that only 60–70% of toys fully complied with all safety regulations, in 20–30% of them information and directions for use were incomplete, and in 10% there were such serious shortcomings that the product had to be taken off the shelves and/or banned. Often the risks are due to the way the toy has been produced; there may be detachable small parts that children may swallow or that may cause suffocation. Occasionally paints contain toxic substances such as lead or cadmium. Thus quite a high percentage of toys on the market are potentially dangerous, and the situation can only be improved by more efficient inspection.

There are adequate legislation and rules on the safety of toys, but no premarket approval is required. Therefore the compliance by manufacturers can only be guaranteed by the vigilance of inspection. Parents also have a responsibility to check the safety of their children's toys.

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