Your Stress-Free Guide to Toxic-Free Holiday Shopping for Kids

Parents are already so overwhelmed just being parents, and the pressure of the holidays can compound these feelings. That’s why, when it comes to buying toxic-free toys for the little ones in our lives, we may feel torn. We want to make sure the gifts we choose are safe, but we also just want to get our shopping done. How do we begin to decipher the seemingly endless list of chemicals that go into making a toy? Why can’t we just trust that what’s on the shelves is safe?

Luckily, there’s real holiday elves like Jennifer Coleman, Oregon Environmental Council’s Health Outreach Director and toxic-free toy expert, with answers to save your holiday, and help your kids have a special one too. We sat down with Jen to learn more about toxic-free holiday toy shopping.

Consider this your handy shopping guide!

What is it with toxics being in our kids’ toys? And didn’t we just pass a law in Oregon to address this?
I ask myself the same question! What is it about a doll, fidget spinner, or clever t-shirt that requires toxic materials? The truth is, I suspect a lot of manufacturers weren’t even aware of toxic components of their products until someone started asking. That’s what the 2015 Oregon law is designed to do: it asks manufacturers to test their products for more than 60 chemicals that we know are of concern to children’s health. Then, they must report the presence of those chemicals. Then, eventually, they must replace those chemicals where safer alternatives exist. The rules for how the law will work are still being created, so it will take some time before we can be certain that toys and other children’s products on the shelves in Oregon are safer.

Flame retardants? What’s the verdict?
The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently warned consumers: if you are pregnant or have little kids, don’t buy products made with certain flame retardants. That includes furniture foam and electronics.

The most hazardous flame retardants chemicals are a problem because

  1. They are released from furniture foam and electronic casings into the air and dust in our homes;
  2. They have been linked to irreversible lifelong health problems such as hormone, neurological and reproductive problems; and
  3. They don’t actually work all that well to prevent fires.

The good news is that it’s becoming easier to find furniture and other foam-containing products that are made without added flame retardants (see more here). The bad news is that it’s much harder to tell with electronics!

We know that wooden toys are better than plastic toys, not just because of the toxics issue, but because they’re better for the environment. But sometimes these toys are significantly more expensive than their plastic counterparts! Are there any plastic toys that are okay?
Plastic is so hard to avoid! In practical terms, it becomes a matter of setting priorities: Avoid all plastic if possible, avoid the most-toxic (PVC vinyl), avoid plastic that is designed to come in contact with food and water (bottles, dishes), and try to choose durable things that last instead of one-use plastics when you can. It’s hard to say what the least-toxic plastic is, because there are so many possible variations!

But we know for certain that the shiny, flexible plastic PVC is a problem. It’s toxic to the environment when it is made, it can off-gas toxic fumes for a long time, and it often uses toxic lead as a stabilizer. There are a lot of safer alternatives to PVC these days, such as shower curtains made from safer PEVA plastic. But you may still find PVC in inflatable goods (toys and air beds), backpacks and school supplies, toy packaging and more. If you can avoid it? Great!

A note about wood: Solid wood is a great choice. But often, products are made with wood-plus-glue composites (also known as plywood, fiberboard or MDF) that can off-gas toxic formaldehyde. Unless it is specifically labeled formaldehyde-free or meets voluntary requirements, it may be better to avoid products that are not solid wood.

Does it matter where a toy is manufactured? Are there certain countries releasing products that are safer than others?
Europe does have a more robust chemical safety program and stronger restrictions on some toxics. If you look for the EU symbol on toys, it means that they are certified for sale in that market with more stringent regulations. More on that here.

The country of origin really isn’t enough to tell you whether or not a toy meets safety standards. But if you’re curious what all those other symbols mean on a children’s product, here is a handy guide.

Beyond toys, do we need to think about ornaments and holiday decorations, especially for parents with babies and toddlers who put everything in their mouths?
Yes, absolutely! It can be tempting to allow kids to play with decorations as if they are toys; but the chance that these products contain toxics in the paint, adhesive or plastic is much higher than in toys, which are designed to meet both physical requirements (choking hazards, etc) and chemical requirements (at least some restrictions on heavy metals, etc). For example: Christmas light strands are often coated with PVC plastic insulation, stabilized with lead. For developing brains, we know that there is no safe level of exposure to lead. So asking a child to use gloves while handling lights, or to wash hands afterwards, is a good idea!

What do we say to grandparents and others who say that our generation is too worried about this? I often hear that “in my day” parents didn’t worry so much about allergens and toxins and everyone turned out fine.

Grandparents are wise, but parents are in charge! I always say “Yes, Grandma, but I am going to do things my way.”

Three points to make:

It was only in the 1990s when scientists first agreed that kids were more vulnerable to toxic chemicals than adults. It’s taking some time to change business to catch up to science.

Babies today aren’t the same as in Grandma’s day. Today, they are born with chemicals in their bodies that didn’t even exist 100 years ago. They were born to moms who also had these exposures. So we need to pay attention to ways to lessen the burden.

Everyone didn’t necessarily turn out fine. Far fewer kids are dying from infection and disease as they did in great-grandma’s day. But the rates of subtle lifelong disorders including infertility, hormone disruption, learning and behavior–there is reason to believe that the environment (both products and pollution) have something to do with rising rates.

But here’s the other part of the story: Stress can be as toxic to the human body as a chemical! And to be honest, there’s only so much a parent can do when shopping–there are some hazards in today’s products that are simply unavoidable. So, as with any choice in parenting, you have to pick your battles. If you accept that you can’t do everything, then do what you can.

And one more thought: If you let Grandma deliver the shiny, blinky plastic bauble that your toddler adores, you just might have to give in. But then you can get mad about it! Check out mindthestore.com for actions you can take to express your concerns to retailers. And stay tuned to OEC: when it’s time to defend the Toxic Free Kids Act, we will need your stories and your help!

What other concerns should I have when looking for toxic-free toys for my child?
Care and attention are important, but so is joy and celebration! Instead of stressing out over toys, how about presents that bring joy of another kind? For older kids, consider a coupon book to redeem for experiences: tickets to a movie, or a trip to the zoo, or get-out-of-chores-free card. For toddlers, it’s great to get the family and friends on board with non-toxic alternatives by making a request that they will enjoy fulfilling. One idea: As an alternative to presents, ask them to share a video, audio or photo of a song, story, or picture personalized for the child.

Keeping baby safe today may be your first concern, but if you’re committed to leaving a healthy environment for future generations, here are a few practical tips for reducing waste this holiday season.

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