When I was pregnant with my son, I voraciously collected toys for him. After all, children need toys (and plenty, right?) and pregnancy seemed to stir in me some sort of insane hoarding creature. I scoured eBay, I went to garage sales, I searched the sale bin of every shop I walked past, I raided Op Shops (church or charity stores in Australia are called Op Shops- short for Opportunity Shops). By the time my son was born, I had amassed a wonderful collection of brightly coloured toys- tables to stand at that had things to flip, shakers and rattles, cars and jittery creatures. I never considered anything could be an issue with these plastic toys- I played with similar ones when I was a child, and they must be safe. Plastic is plastic, and plastic is fine. Everything is plastic, anyway! You can't avoid it, right? And my son loved his pile of amazing toys.
Then, I had the fortune to discover the truth about Bisphenol A when I was looking into getting him a sippy cup to go with the introduction of solids. I read everything I could, and it started to make me concerned. Some of these plastics were toxic, and had been considered toxic for over 50 years? Affecting the endocrine system? No thanks! I was so cautious about making sure all the food-related plastics in our home were stable and BPA free- and then I turned my attention to the pile of toys lurking in our lounge room.
The first cull, I removed all older toys and anything which appeared to contain PVC. (The European Union has banned the use of PVC in children’s toys due to health concerns.) The reason I removed the older toys was because I started to become aware of lead in plastics and the release of toxins as older toys degrade. Everything I read had me thinking further and further about what my son was being exposed to. I had to consider how this fit into my choices so far... I didn't vaccinate my son, I was careful about what we ate, we chose organic foods, we had a chemical-free home, I didn't put plastic nappies on him, we didn't eat artificial sweeteners- and yet my son was rolling about amidst a mass of plastic joy. Plastic joy which was probably affecting his nervous and endocrine system while he giggled and mouthed everything in sight. Why hadn't I questioned this yet?
So I set about shifting my habits. I collected wooden toys everywhere I went and I asked for them as gifts for his 1st birthday. People were wonderful about it, actually- many people bought us some really lovely handmade gifts which were as simple as a wooden car or a small set of blocks. I made a simple suggestion on the invitations- 'We would appreciate toys made of natural materials, or books.' I expected people to simply ignore this, but nobody did. Every person found it easy to pick one or the other, and my son received some lovely books and some wonderful natural toys made from wood, bamboo, wool and metal. It wasn't anywhere near as hard as I expected. Our friends and family said they didn't mind it at all, and some started reconsidering plastic toys in their home, too.
After his birthday, I had the opportunity to remove all plastic toys from our home- we now had a lovely basket of wooden animals, an abacus, some large felt balls, a wooden walker and a wooden Wheely Bug (http://shop.wildchildnappies.com.au/categories.php?category=Spoil-your-little-one%21&page=2&sort=featured this shop has a great selection, and cheaper than anywhere else). I bagged all the plastic toys up and donated them to charity. Our lounge room went from cluttered to clear and my son seemed to enjoy his toys more. He would walk animals across the floor instead of kicking aside toys littering the floor.
But enough about our journey into a plastic toy free environment...
Here is some info on the specific problems with some plastics:
Polyvinyl chloride, also known as vinyl, is the plastic used in products when they need to be flexible. Teething rings and soft, flexible toys are just some products that are manufactured from PVC plastic. PVC is a health hazard and a pollutant- it contains lead, pthalates, cadmium, light stabilizers, barium, heat stabilizers, anti-oxidants and other chemical compounds. PVC production has increased 100-fold during the last 40 years- more and more products are being manufactured from it because is it relatively inexpensive.
The disposal of PVC can also impact human health through our environment. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals known to humans and is a by-product of both the manufacturing and the incineration of certain chlorine based products, including PVC. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies dioxin as a Class I Carcinogen. Exposure to dioxin has been shown to cause immune system damage, reprodutive and developmental problems and hormone interference. Dioxin is in our foods and is fat-soluble, having an accumulative effect as it travels up the food chain, increasing drataically in concentration- much like mercury. We cannot eliminate dioxin easily from our bodies. However, Dioxin does travels through breast milk and crosses the placenta- pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid Dioxin at all times.
PthalatesPthalates (pronounced "thalates") are chemical compounds which make PVC soft and stretchy and account for a high percentage of a finished product's weight. Pthalates never chemically bind to the plastic and leach from the plastic at a rate of up to 1% each year. The European Union Scientific Committee reported in April of 1998 that the two most common pthalates, DEHP and DINP, seeped from PVC toys at dangerous levels. DEHP, labeled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen, is the most commonly used phthalate in PVC plastics. Bottles of DINP (the phthalate most commonly used in toys) used in the lab must be labeled with a warning, part of which is: "May cause cancer; harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin, and if swallowed; possible risk of irreversible effects..." A teething ring may contain 40% of DINP by weight.
Bishenol A (BPA)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisphenol_A <-- I can't say what I want about BPA without clogging up this whole blog, so have a click here and read some of the info for yourself.
There is simply too much mounting evidence against BPA, which is why BPA is banned from many countries now. However, many older toys contain BPA, as well as cheaper toys which contain clear plastics. Less than 5% of BPA used goes into food contact applications such as cups or plastic containers. Anything clear and shatter-proof in your home is likely to contain BPA unless stated otherwise.
High levels of lead are also found in PVC and some other plastics. Studies show that vinyl windows deteriorate with exposure to heat and sun. This deterioration releases lead dust at dangerous and toxic levels. Vinyl window shades containing lead have been banned in the U.S- but what about toys made from PVC? Aren't they often left in the sun, by a window, or in a car? A study conducted by Greenpeace and the University of North Carolina raised some concern that the same type of deterioration can happen in toys.
Here's hoping there is some food for thought here to help push you towards eliminating some plastics from your home. The less there is, the less likely it is that you are all breathing in Phthalates. The more plastic toys in one area, the higher the concentration of phthalates which you are all being exposed to.
Some great places to buy affordable wooden toys are:
Etsy and MadeIt have some wonderful hand-felted toys which can be under $5 an item. Many of these stores have sales.
Facebook pages have garage sales, so keep an eye out on specials.
Ask some people around you where they get cheap ones- these pages are from Australia so if you like elsewhere then there is bound to be some online eco toy shops with sale items.
The other alternative to purchasing toys is to give your children natural objects to play with, so here are some ideas (which you'll find in many Steiner/Waldorf schools as well):
*Baskets of smooth pebbles and rocks
*Baskets of shells
*Making playsilks from soft materials or silk scarves from second-hand stores
*Make your own knitted toys or hand sew some felt animals, food and fruits- this is easier than you think, simply google some felt food tutorials and get started. You can also make them from plain materials. I was a novice sewer and I managed to make some wonderful felt strawberries on my first go:
*Make your own wooden blocks by choosing small branches and sawing into small sections, then sand off the edges to make eclectic blocks which can be expanded upon from branches you find in your neighbourhood:
Your options are only as limited as your imagination, and your children can come up with some wonderful ideas to help as well.