By Faiza Ilyas
Monday, 01 Mar, 2010
KARACHI: Laboratory tests carried out on a number of imported toys randomly collected from city markets have shown that they contain high levels of toxic metals and chemicals.
While these toxic materials can cause a wide range of health disorders in case of human exposure, there exists no system in the city at any level to check contamination in toys, whether manufactured locally, imported or smuggled in. Also, there are no Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority guidelines specifically on toys to ensure children’s safety, an investigation carried out by Dawn has revealed.
The tests on toys were conducted at Karachi University’s centralised science laboratory. The toxic elements include lead, cadmium and various types of phthalates.
The 14 tested samples included eight soft toys and six hard ones. The toxic ingredients were found not only in the plastic material the toys were made from, but also in the thin coating of spray paint that is used to paint them. The prices of the imported toys ranged from Rs20 to Rs250.
According to the analysis, half of the hard toy samples contained between 10mg/kg and 20mg/kg of lead and 10mg/kg 30mg/kg cadmium in sprayed colours. All of the soft toys contained 4mg-7mg of cadmium per sample.
The tests also revealed the presence of very high levels of phthalates, far exceeding the EU limit of 0.1 per cent by mass of plasticised material. In most samples, traces of cheap and volatile phthalates were found.
Young children at greater risk
According to Dr Nasiruddin Khan, the head of the KU’s lab, all the tested samples exceeded the internationally accepted minimum risk levels. “These toxic contents are known to cause serious health disorders. It all depends on the level of their concentration, which in this case is very high, as well as the extent of their exposure, which in this case we don’t know. Children under three years, however, are more at risk because they tend to chew and suck on plastic toys and also because their bodies are in the development process.”
Lead, he said, was a well-known neurotoxin and affected all systems within the body. “It can cause gradual mental retardation. The problem with lead is that it starts depositing in the brain. So, even low exposure to lead could be dangerous due to its cumulative effect. Ideally, toys should be lead-free,” Dr Khan said.
Defining phthalates, Dr Khan said that they are produced from petrochemicals, are odourless and look like clear vegetable oil. These organic chemicals are commonly used as plasticisers to make plastic supple. Till recently, di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate was the dominantly used plasticiser in toys. After scientific studies showed that DEHP is toxic, di-isononyl phthalate has become the most commonly used plasticiser. Dr Khan pointed out, however, that studies have shown that DINP is also harmful.
“Currently, we don’t have specialised equipment that is sensitive to very low levels of toxicity in toys. However, there has been an increasing awareness all over the world in recent years about the toxic contents of toys and laboratories with specialised equipment are being developed solely to test toxicity in toys,” Dr Khan told Dawn.
‘False claims of non-toxicity’
The findings of the tests at the KU, he said, showed that the claims of toy manufacturers and merchants about the non-toxicity of their toys are often completely false. For instance, a soft imported doll carrying a label proclaiming non-toxicity and a tag saying it was safe for children aged between three and 18 months had a phthalate content many times above the safe limit.
“To control and monitor the use of phthalates is a subject that has remained ignored in many countries of the world. In Pakistan, there is little awareness about the fact that toys can be toxic. Hence, we not only need to create awareness on the issue, but also require enactment of relevant rules and regulations. The next step should be the setting up of a system to check contamination in toys,” he said.
In this context, he gave the example of India, where the government has recently committed to testing all toys, whether manufactured in India or abroad, for toxicity. The measure came following the Supreme Court taking an interest in ascertaining the levels of pigment used in toy paint coatings.
Risks to health
The effects of lead exposure to the human body, especially children, has been discussed in a study carried out by the AKU’s Department of Community Health in collaboration with the Epidemiology and International Health department of the University of Alabama in 2007.
The research paper, titled ‘Status of children’s blood lead levels in Pakistan: implications for research and policy’, says that children are more vulnerable to lead exposure than adults because developing brains are more sensitive to the effects of lead exposure. Children can also be exposed to lead from mothers during gestation and breast-feeding.
Some relevant studies have shown that childhood exposure to even low levels of lead shift the intelligence quotient distribution of an entire population towards the lower end of the scale, leading to a decrease in the overall intellectual level and productivity of that population.
About the risks cadmium and phthalates pose to human health, Dr Zafar Fatmi, head of the Environmental Health Sciences division and Community Medicine Residency Programme Director at the Aga Khan University’s department of Community Health Sciences, said: “Cadmium exposure among children may affect kidneys, lungs, and also intestinal damage in this case as the route of exposure is also ingestion.
“Although child development and behavioural problems have not been seen with cadmium exposure, a careful approach is needed as little research has been done,” he said, adding that animal studies indicated that younger members of the population were more susceptible than adults and that cadmium exposure could contribute to decreased bone strength.
According to Dr Fatmi, the minimal risk level (MRL) for cadmium is 0.1 µg/kg/day. Most ingested cadmium passes through the stomach and the intestines unabsorbed (1-6 per cent is absorbed).
“Based on the available evidence, this level may be exceeded in this case and may have implications for children’s health. However, exceeding the MRL does not mean that health effects exist and further evaluation is required,” he said, adding that children with PICA (persistent and compulsive cravings in children to eat nonfood items) behaviour were at the greatest risk of adverse effects from exposure to cadmium.
Regarding phthalates, he said it was important to know which type of phthalate one was exposed to. “No research studies have been conducted so far gauging the effect of diethyl phthalate on humans exclusively. Animal studies, however, show that very high doses have caused deaths among animals. Long term effects on animals are decreased weight gain.“Most of the exposure is probably occurring in this case through ingestion. It does not have any documented health effects on children,” he said.
No checks at any level
Responding to a Dawn query, Naseer Ahmed Siddiqui, deputy chemical examiner heading the customs laboratory, said that imported toys were not examined for toxicity at the lab.
“The laboratory carries out detailed analysis only of food items. The rest of the tests are meant to determine the value of the object by examining the ratio of certain elements in it in order to fix a duty. The tests are not meant to check contamination from a health point of view.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that the city government doesn’t have a system or capacity to check contamination in toys when the PSQCA, Pakistan’s topmost body on quality control, has no guidelines on toxicity in toys, sources told Dawn.