Image from medicalnewstoday.com
Believe it or not, summer is just around the corner. For many families, the end of the school year means that kids will be spending more time playing, often with toys made of various plastics. Plastics are safely used in countless household items, but recently, many people have begun to voice health concerns regarding their use. Let’s look at what the evidence says.
One material that is a focus of concern is bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA. Concerns about BPA arose when a 1930’s researcher searching for an artificial estrogen found that BPA shared many of the properties of estrogen. In the late 1990’s, BPA was discovered to be leaching out of plastics when researchers in a lab at Stanford noticed cell cultures in plastic containers reacting as if they had been treated with estrogen. Some have suggested that BPA in low doses may be linked to a number of health effects, such as changes in thyroid function and fertility, birth defects, and others. However, the amount and quality of evidence supporting these theories is limited.
Phthalates are another class of chemicals that have recently been considered. Since the 1920’s, phthalates have been added to plastics in order to increase flexibility, durability, and other desirable qualities. Some evidence suggests that these materials can come loose from the plastic that they were added to, leach into the surrounding area, and then be introduced into the body through diet. Other studies seem to show that high levels of phthalate exposure in utero could be associated with birth defects such as shorter gestation (pregnancy) period, motor deficits in females, disrupted male reproductive development, and other deficits. Regulatory agencies, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), now require warnings on products that contain phthalates. Furthermore, regulations and bans on the various uses of phthalates have been passed across North America and Europe.
Lastly, the summer season often comes with hours spent playing in the water, often with squeezable plastic toys such as a rubber duck (which may also be used in the bath). These toys, often stored in dark, damp areas such as a bathroom, are prime environments for the growth of microbes. This microbial growth can develop into what is known as a biofilm– an aggregation of microbes held together by a slimy, secreted matrix of polymers. When the child squeezes the toy to eject the water, the bacteria are expelled as well. Exposure to pathogens early in life can help strengthen a child’s immune system. However, pathogens (including some of those shown to grow in rubber duck biofilms) can potentially also infect children, especially through mucus membranes such as the eyes, ears, nose, or mouth. This infection can lead to diarrhea, meningitis, urinary tract infections, and other symptoms.
These risks are small and are often mediated by other factors, meaning that overall, these toys should not be considered dangerous for use. For example, older toys tend to be higher risk for dangerous substances. In order to mitigate the risks of overexposure to these chemicals, some researchers have begun developing and advocating for a more clear labeling system and a standardization of materials used in children’s toys. In the meantime, however, cleaning toys regularly can be a great precaution to take.