Beware: Local Toxic Toys
When global toy manufacturer Mattel recalled millions of popular children's toys sold under its Fisher-Price brand in mid-August and then again in September this year, as they were found to contain dangerous levels of toxic elements, concerns were raised for the first time in India about the toxicity of toys.
A study on the levels of toxic elements present in toys sold in Indian markets has revealed shockingly high levels of lead and cadmium - in varying concentrations - in all of the 111 toys collected from Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai last year. The study, conducted by Delhi-based NGO Toxics Link, is said to be the only such study conducted in India so far.
According to Dr Abhay Kumar of Toxics Link and a co-author of the study, lead and cadmium act as stabilizers in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) toys. Manufacturers also use PVC to add bright colors to the toys in order to attract children. He emphasizes that when chewed or sucked by children, these toys put the little ones at risk of severe exposure to lead and cadmium.
India has more than 130 million children below the age of six - an age when children do chew and even swallow substances. This makes a large number of the population prone to lead and cadmium poisoning from toys. A large amount of these metals in the bloodstream could lead to complications such as brittleness of bones, mental disorders and even cancer, states Kumar.
According to Professor Veena Kalra, Head of the Department of Pediatrics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), exposure to lead toxicity in children could pose several health hazards, such as impaired hearing and growth. It could also affect the child's IQ, lead to nerve disorders, anemia and even, in cases, death, she adds.
The government has confirmed that several Chinese toys being sold in the market are highly toxic as they contain high levels of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. The issue was discussed in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) recently when Minister of State for Health Panabaka Lakshmi confirmed newspaper reports about toxic toys from China.
Observing that most toys in Chennai and Mumbai were being imported from China, the minister stated that lead is a known neuro and hematological toxin that can lead to delayed development and lower IQ in children, while cadmium primarily affects the kidneys.
With regard to safety guidelines for toys, the Minister said the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has published three standards. But the irony is that India does not have an enforceable standard for toys and it is doubtful if toy manufacturers in the country have bothered to apply for the ISI mark, the safety requirement issued by the BIS.
According to the Toxics Link study, the cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai have big toy markets. In fact, Mumbai is the regional hub for plastic toys. Most of the soft toys found there are made of PVC, and Chinese toys dominate.
In Delhi, toys are manufactured and supplied not only locally but also to other states. In fact, it is one of the major wholesale toy markets in the region. These unbranded toys have a huge demand in the economically lower income groups, which live in various resettlement and slum colonies. From here, small shopkeepers, street vendors and individuals form a parallel chain of supply in different areas and localities.
Conversations with toy sellers reveal that these toys are in greater demand in poor and rural communities than amongst the higher income group, one of the reasons that these toys are absent from up-market shops where only branded toys are sold.
Following the international outcry, Mattel withdrew 2,000 toys from its Batman series from the Indian market. But as the bulk of toys circulating in the cities come from the unorganized industry with no regulatory control, the crisis is far from over.
In India, the unorganized sector dominates the toy manufacturing industry, with over 1,000 units in the small-sector and a larger number in the cottage sector. What is of grave concern is that toys made in the unorganized sector use cheap recycled plastic, which can be a source of poisoning. And a lack of regulatory control poses serious health risks to the children.
Given that the toy industry volume in India is estimated to be US$1 billion (US$1=Rs 39.90) in the organized sector and about US$1.50 billion in the unorganized sector, it is shocking that toy manufacturers have not bothered to register with the BIS.
But manufacturers have their own explanation. "The BIS guidelines with regard to toy production are that it is self-regulatory and not mandatory. Also, toy manufacturers don't register for the ISI mark for their products because it is an expensive procedure," says Paresh Chawala, President, Toy Association of India. The association consists of 600 members across the country, 250 wholesalers and 350 distributors.
Chawala, however, agrees that in view of the ongoing controversy, the industry is going to have to take a more proactive approach - keeping in mind consumer concerns. "Yes, consumers are more aware now and want safe toys for their children. We held a meeting of our members recently and decided to get all the information relating to the BIS rules so we can start the process for getting the ISI mark," he says.
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Nitin Jugran Bahuguna
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We want get safety guidelines for toys - BIS has published three standards.