Fisher Price recalls. BPA in baby bottles. Phthalates lurking in rubber ducks. For the modern mom, just finding safe things for kids to play with can be a major undertaking. In her new book Spit That Out: The Overly Informed Parent’s Guide to Raising Children in the Age of Environmental Guilt, author and eco-friendly public relations firm owner Paige Wolf turns to experts and everyday moms for ways to simplify green, non-toxic living. After the jump Paige shares a few of her “Green Mom Sanity Tips” to help you control the panic and do what you can to keep your family and the planet safe.

Eco-savvy moms may register for toys made by companies with the highest records of safety and sustainability, but a run-of-the-mill plastic toy is bound to make it into the playpen. Unless we want to tote all our own toys to play groups and homeschool our children, it’s inevitable that something made with BPA or phthalates will cross our children’s paths.

As a “neurotic green mom,” I’ve spent hours searching on and e-mailing companies to inquire about the chemicals in the toys my son has just ripped into. And more often than not, I’m not happy with the answers.

Image © alancleaver_2000

The Background on BPA & Phthalates

Though lead and mercury have long been on parents’ radars, more recent crackdowns on phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA) have created new waves of hysteria. Because there are no labeling requirements, it’s hard to say when chemicals like phthalates and BPA first came into use as a common component of toys. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s there was a noticeable upward trend in the rise of plastics in everyday life.

While the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are just starting to explore the idea of regulations, action against BPA is being taken on a state-by-state level, with Connecticut banning it from both baby bottles and infant formula cans. However, Dr. Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada and co-author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things, says even in advance of federal government action, most manufacturers are getting it out of their products. BPA is less likely to be found in newer toys, but if there is something you are unsure about, it’s best to avoid letting your child chew on it.

With strong links to breast and prostate cancer and reproductive abnormalities in little boys, phthalates may be as dangerous as they are difficult to spell. Smith says phthalates are arguably more common in kids’ toys than BPA and are also found in many personal care products, especially anything heavily scented. Fragrance and perfume are big tip-offs to phthalates, and as fragrance is considered “proprietary information,” manufacturers don’t have to list the ingredients or chemicals.

Smith says that until very recently most things that are soft and squishy — i.e., the illustrious rubber duck — would contain phthalates to some level. In the last year, the U.S. and Canada have moved toward the European standard — a ban on phthalates in toys meant for children under 3, which has existed there since the ‘90s. In 2008, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act to enact a permanent ban on three phthalates and a temporary ban on three others from comprising more than 0.1 percent of any children’s product for ages 12 and under. However, that rule puts no restriction or labeling requirements on toys for older kids or personal care products.

The good news is that by being a little more careful with what you use and buy you can dramatically lower levels of these chemicals in your body — sometimes within in a matter of hours, Dr. Smith says. Our bodies can quite effectively flush phthalates and BPA out of our systems, offering a detoxifying reprieve similar to quitting smoking.

Image © Mads Boedker

What You Can Do

If your child is tired of playing with sticks and stones and you’re thinking about that holiday wish list, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

  • Most scrupulous manufacturers are labeling the absence of phthalates and BPA. If it doesn’t say “no phthalates,” it probably contains them.
  • Remember that we vote with our wallets and our voices. As much as possible, spend your money with brands and retailers that promote fair labor practices and sustainability. Good brands with stringent sustainability and safety guidelines include Plan Toys, Haba, and Green Toys. Also try sites like Oompa that sell safe toys from a variety of trusted manufacturers (and even have wish lists!)
  • Secondhand toys from flea markets and yard sales are great affordable and sustainable finds. However, be sure to check for recalls by Googling the manufacturer and item number, and steer clear of soft, squishy plastic and hard, clear plastic — often signs of phthalates and BPA. Also watch out for shiny, metallic paint, which could be a sign of lead or cadmium.
  • Check plastic toys for the same numbers you probably check for recycling. Numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5 are the least problematic and not so coincidentally the easiest to recycle. Stay away from numbers 3, 6, and 7 — these are the ones which may leach dangerous chemicals and inevitably end up in landfills anyway.