Prague It looks like a Rubik’s black plastic cube, which reveals more and more characters from the Czech famous children fairy tale Little Mole. But it is far from being harmless. In last year’s international survey of toys from 25 countries, this toy contained the highest concentration of dangerous flame retardants. Some of these substances may also harm the child’s nervous system according to numerous scientific studies. The toy has not disappeared from the store. Its sale is completely legal. The situation can be resolved by the European Parliament this week (15th November).
The Cube, designed for children from three years of age, and many other contaminated toys were revealed by Arnika Association in a report, financed by the Ministry of the Environment and the Prague City Hall.
Safety of toys according to the Ministry of Health
„The provisions on the chemical safety of toys clearly state that toys must be designed and manufactured in such a way that they do not present any risk of adverse effects on human health as a result of exposure to chemicals or mixtures. This principle is based on a risk assessment: if toys contain hazardous chemicals, the state authorities can withdraw them from the market,“ said Gabriela Štěpanyová, a press spokeswoman of Ministry of Health.
Arnika association has initiated an international comparison of toys with a high concentration of brominated flame retardants (PBDE) from 25 countries. This cube surpassed even a toy from Nigeria. If we focus only on the concentration of these toxic substances, it is a very problematic toy. The retailer can sell it without any penalty, it complies with all valid Czech and European regulations.
The Czech toy importer’s executive director, who sells this cube made by the Chinese company Yam YiK Tat Trading Limited, acted accordingly: The company temporarily withdrew the cube from the Czech market after an alert from Arnika. They warned their customers, but eventually re-evaluated the decision.
„After the reassessment by the State Testing Institute in Zlín, which has evaluated this product as safe and in compliance with all valid standards, we have put this product back on sale and I expect it to be sold out by the end of November. For the year 2019, we will have a new batch from the manufacturer that will meet the standards again,“ he told Lidovky.cz.
They spread easily, causing stupidity
However, while the retailer shows the results of the certifying authority tests, Arnika’s representatives and the scientific community draw attention to already-known as well as emerging health risks.
Other possible impacts on human health
PBDEs are substances that are hazardous to human health. Immediate exposure to PBDE includes skin and eye irritation. Due to their nature they accumulate in the body, especially in tissues and organs with high fat content. They may cause liver damage. Other possible health impacts include impaired thyroid function. Data on possible carcinogenicity have shown increased likelihood of liver cancer in animals. Some substances in this group may also endanger the healthy development of the fetus.
(source: Integrated Pollution Register)
„Brominated flame retardants are persistent organic substances known as POPs. They remain in the environment for a long time, burden them disproportionately and have negative effects on people’s health. Brominated flame retardants damage the immune, hormonal and reproductive system. They are associated with reduced intelligence and concentration in small children. Scientists believe they can cause liver cancer,“ says Jitka Straková, a research author of recycled plastic toys study.
They migrate in the human body via skin contact or simple inhalation. If the child plays with the cube, it does harm him immediately. But it is an additional dose that is stored in the body for a long time.
Months after Arnika highlighted the issue, the cube from China is still available in a number of Czech e-shops selling toys. In the course of the year, it was also available in a number of retail stores. Arnika bought this toy for analysis in Teta drugstore chain last year. To eliminate any doubt that this was a rare case, the Lidovky.cz News Website bought a toy in the middle of May from the same retailer and sent it for an independent analysis to the laboratory of the Institute of Chemical Technology (VŠCHT).
Toy or toxic waste?
What did the cube contain?
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are a group of organic substances used as flame retardants in plastics. There are three types (based on the number of atoms in the molecule):
Penta-BDE is mainly used as a flame
retardant in flexible polyurethane foam for the production of furniture
and upholstery, according to Arnika. Hard-black black plastic products
hardly contain this flame retardant. „They can be found in recycled
carpet padding, which is made of used furniture upholstery,“ explains
the author of the study Jitka Straková. It is on the list of restricted
substances, but allowed in recycled products due to time-limited
recycling exemption (until 2030). The EU parliament will vote on
withdrawing this exemption on Thursday. It is banned in electrical and
(source: Integrated Pollution Register, Arnika)
There is lots of confusion among consumers regarding the limits for PBDEs content in products and waste. However, to understand the current situation, the limits are more stringent for products made of virgin plastics and weaker for recycled goods. The situation might change in the following year when limits for the most frequently observed substance in tested toys - Deca-BDE will be adopted. (see What did the cube contain?).
The experts expect the EU will adopt a combined limit of 1000 ppm (1000 parts per million) for the sum of PBDEs in waste intended for further recycling.
The limit is hundred times lower for octa-BDE in new products - products containing more than 10 ppm of this compound are not allowed on the market. If all the restrictions were already in place today, the analysis of this toy would reveal shocking results. The toy tested by Arnika Association last year contained 2614.34 ppm of PBDEs. The cube contained predominantly deca-BDE (2234 ppm) as well as 380 ppm octa-BDE. So, if the toy was made of new plastics, it would have exceeded the limit for Octa-BDE 38 times. The second cube, analyzed for the Lidovky.cz, contained 529.7 ppm of PBDEs, roughly one-fifth the amount of the previous sample – predominantly Deca-BDE again in the concentration of 462 ppm. If it was not made from recycled material, the octa-BDE concentration limit would be exceeded nearly seven times (67.6 ppm).
Different concentrations in both cubes are not surprising, explains Jindřich Petrlík from Arnika. „The melted plastic is poured into the form while being heated. However, it is mixed up inside, so the material is not homogeneous. The same type of product can vary substantially in the concentration of flame retardants,“ explains Petrlík. Still, he thinks the concentration is pretty high. The executive director of Arnika’s Toxic and Waste Programme, points out that concentrations of brominated flame retardants are dangerous even in the order of ten parts per million.
Although experts confirm that such a toy can be dangerous for children, the concentration of toxic substances absorbed directly into the body is very difficult to determine.
„PBDEs are dangerous substances. Children exposed to these substances, whether from dietary sources or from toys made of recycled material, may be at risk, but the amount of substance entering the body is crucial. For this reason, it is quite difficult to indicate the hazard; it is not just about the PBDE’s concentration in the toy. It also depends on whether the baby licks the toy, the amount of time spent in contact with the skin and so on,“ explained Czech chemist Jana Hajšlová, the head of the Chemical Safety Food Department at the Institute of Chemical Technology. According to the European Food Safety Authority, it is often the food contaminated by toxic flame retardants that adds up to the human exposure burden.
Recycling at any cost?
Impacts on the environment
Many studies have shown that PBDEs can fundamentally damage aquatic organisms by impairing their reproductive functions and growth, and thus interfere with fragile ecosystem balance. These are persistent substances, i.e. they do not break down easily in the environment. PBDEs have a significant bioaccumulation capacity in living organisms and sediments.
(source: Integrated Pollution Register)
Brominated flame retardants, together with plasticizers and heavy metals, were used in electrical appliances, insulation, upholstery, furniture and car interiors. They were found toxic and persistent, detected in far-away places. Their use decreased when the most toxic ones were totally banned for sale in 2004. However, the European Union has allowed companies to export toxic plastics for recycling.
„Here the limits are deliberately benevolent. Many European and national officials admit that, given the high recycling targets, they prefer plastics recycling even if containing toxic substances. They hope they will dissolve over time throughout the cycle. However, this is a short-sighted solution because the entire recycling process becomes questionable, „says Karolina Brabcova, Arnika’s expert on toxic chemicals in consumer goods, saying there are technologies that can remove plastics from dangerous substances.
As a result, recycled plastics can get into the toy without breaking any law. According to Petrlik and Brabcová, the circle that makes toxic toys on the shelves of local shops, looks as follows: electronics are exported to the countries of eastern and southeast Asia and Africa, perhaps as electronics that can be repaired. Here, they often become waste intended for recycling. Same is true for car wrecks. At that moment, it is very difficult to trace brominated flame retardants in waste and they may appear in products that are heading back to the European market.
Czech Trade Inspection (ČOI) authority explains: „We have not received any request to address the potential dangers arising from toxic BFRs and the ČOI did not receive any notifications of RAPEX about hazardous toys due to bromine or antimony contamination. If they appear in toys, they are basically outside of our competency, except for those that are powered by electricity.”
The Ministry of Industry and Trade points out that the limits of PBDE can be monitored for electric toys in the Czech Republic, although according to the Czech Trade Inspection, no investigation has been initiated yet . „The maximum values of PBDEs allowed in homogeneous materials in electric toys must not exceed 0.1%,“ says Ministry spokesman Milan Řepka. The Czech Republic, however, does not have the leverage of pushing for stricter POPs regulation in consumer products. It must be a joint EU decision. „In the European Union, the free movement of goods within the common market must be preserved, for this reason the Czech Republic does not consider unilateral introduction of measures to limit imports,“ said Řepka.
Arnika’s findings point out to a larger problem: „When we measured bromine concentration, we focused on black plastic toys, which most often come from recycled computers and other electronics. A higher percentage of bromine was found in every tenth toy. Bromine was also present in white plastic toys, apparently from recycled computers,“ says Petrlík, head of Arnika Associaton.
According to the most recent study released by the association in mid-October, the situation is even worse throughout Europe. Of the 430 collected products including children toys from 19 countries, about 25% contained a high amount of bromine. One of them - a plastic guitar toy from Portugal - contained the highest amount of brominated flame retardants - 3318 ppm or 0,3% of product weight.
What is the solution?
It is difficult to blame shops and resellers, they follow current standards. According to Arnika, the sale of these products is possible due to recycling exemptions adopted by European legislation, which allows recycled goods to contain substances prohibited by the Stockholm Convention.
Stockholm Convention is a legally binding international agreement in force since 2004 aiming at eliminating persistent organic pollutants from the environment. The Czech Republic ratified it in 2002, and is among the 179 countries committed to implement it. Since 2009, Stockholm convention bans two brominated retardants penta-BDE and octa-BDE. Simultaneously, the EU successfully lobbied for recycling exemptions for these two substances allowing PBDEs containing waste to be recycled into new products until 2030.
Arnika’s expert Karolína Brabcová proposes a solution: „It is necessary to ban these toxic substances as quickly as possible, globally in both new and recycled products. Then plastics recycling will really become a very positive process in terms of sustainability and environmental protection. And these persistent pollutants will disappear faster from the production cycle.“
Arnika called on the European Parliament and the European Commission to resolve the situation by amending European legislation in October. There are two main instruments to achieve this goal - setting stricter limits for recycling of these substances to prevent their exports to developing countries, and lifting existing exemptions for their use in specific sectors like automobile and aircraft industry. Whether there is a political will to change the current situation, will be clear this Thursday (15th November). The European Parliament will vote on updating the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Regulation while taking decisions on both aspects of the issue - ending exemptions for the use of brominated flame retardants and the setting of stricter limits to comply with the Stockholm Convention.
What will the European Parliament vote for?
„The EU is now harmonizing the Regulation on Persistent Organic Substances. It needs to be updated after DecaBDE was added to the list of banned substances under the Stockholm Convention in 2017. At the same time, European Commission wants to update the limits for other substances already added to the list previously. For BFRs, it addresses the question of withdrawing recycling exemption for penta- and octa-DBEs. In the case of DecaBDE, the Stockholm Convention does not allow a recycling exemption. The EU has applied other tactics – asking for exemptions for authorizing continuous use of DecaBDE in cars and aircraft, primarily for spare parts,“ says Arnika expert on toxic substances Karolina Brabcová, alhtough Boeing has previously confirmed its ability to replace PBDEs from its production relatively fast.
The battle is not over, assumes the MEP and Vice-Chairman of the Environment Committee (ENVI), Public Health and Food Safety, Pavel Poc (CSSD): He sees the proposal to regulate the problematic Deca-BDE more vigorously rather optimistic, although due to numerous exemptions it will not disappear fully from the circulation. He fears that the current European Parliament does not have much will to withdraw recycling exemptions for the above mentioned substances revealed in the toy. „While the rapporteur included some of the substances missing in the European Commission’s proposal (including decaBDE), there are many exemptions for continuous use in aviation and automotive industries. He also disagrees with including the socio-economic impacts assessment to the process of nominating new POPs to the list of globally banned substances under the Stockholm convention. This process should always take into account primarily the risk to human health and the environment,“ says Poc and suggests that anyone who emphasizes economic gains over public health is responsible for the current situation.
The European Commission will also have a say in this process. It has commissioned a new study on the presence of PBDE in wastes. The Czech Ministry of the Environment is looking closely at its conclusions. „The study is not public at this moment, it is commented on by Member States experts. The European Commission will publish the study at the end of this year. Based on the results of this study, the EC will propose POPs limits in waste that will continue to go through the legislative process at the European level,“ said Dominika Pospíšilová from the press department of the Ministry.
Little Mole company statement
„Our company is always keen to ensure that the products we license are of good quality and safe. Unfortunately, we are not the only copyright holder. However, we strongly state that the license for this product does not come from Karolina Milerová or any of its companies,“ says Adam Pařízek, sales manager of Little Mole.