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Christmas Biohazard

What do conscientious parents do when even “organic” toys are revealed to be a bit toxic?

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A study posted on HealthyToys.org last week tested about 1,500 toys for toxins. About a third registered significant hazards, with lead in 20 percent. Even zealous parents got a shock: Some items from manufacturers widely considered “nontoxic,” such as Haba, Alex, Corolle, and Melissa & Doug, were found to have dangerous levels, too.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” says Tanya Knepp, a Hoboken mom to two boys under 3, who researches their toys. “There’s only so much information you can gather. I don’t know where to go from here.” Merchants are also frustrated. “I yearn for some consistency,” says Paul Nippes of Kidding Around in Chelsea. “I have to rely on my suppliers to be compliant.” Lisa Mahar, owner of Kid O in the West Village, sells her own line of wooden toys, made in China. “It’s difficult,” she says. “You try to build relationships and pick the best companies you can. You can’t test every single piece. You can work with a factory and everything seems fine and they end up subbing the work out to be painted elsewhere and you don’t even know.” While HealthyToys.org notes that 80 percent of all U.S. toys are made in China, the group hasn’t found “a consistent correlation between the country of manufacture and the presence of toxic chemicals.”

HealthyToys.org is more cautious than the Consumer Products Safety Commission. Anything that contains PVC (a.k.a. vinyl) is an automatic “medium” hazard—it often contains hormone disrupters. Plus, their testing method screens the entire toy, so their results can include findings from “inaccessible” areas. “A year ago we were saying avoid painted toys, go with these companies purporting to be selling organic toys,” says Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai. Organic toys do fare better: Over 70 percent of the products by Melissa & Doug and Haba tested had low hazards, versus 25 percent of Mattel’s. Plan Toys came in at 96 percent. So what to do? “Toys are nice but not necessary,” Landrigan says. So just do without? “Our poor children are going to be playing with twigs and pebbles,” quips Knepp.

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