Bisphenol A is an endocrine disrupting hormone - a developmental, neural, and reproductive toxin. Very low doses of BPA exposure have been linked to cancers, impaired immune function, early onset of puberty, obesity, diabetes, and hyperactivity among other problems. Exposure to BPA is widespread - it has been found in the urine of 95% of people tested in studies. Alarmingly, the median level of BPA in humans is higher than the level that causes adverse effects in animal studies. (information from an Environment California report)
Bisphenol A is found in hard clear plastics and has been in the news quite a bit for its presence in baby bottles, sippy cups, and the lining of canned foods. BPA can also be found in many toys including teethers and toys that infants may mouth. Although many newer toys are BPA free, anything you already have or purchase used should be suspect. We had to toss some rattles (things with the clear hard plastic parts on them) and baby toys that had BPA in them. I also have to wonder, even if plastic toys are now marketed as BPA free, what do they contain instead?
Phthalates are a human carcinogen, added to soft plastics to keep them pliable. Think teethers, bath toys, vinyl books... PVC often contains lead and phthalates and is the least recyclable plastic posing numerous health and environmental concerns. Phthalates in children's products are being phased out due to the CPSIA regulations.
Although the new CPSIA laws are aimed at making toys safer for children, the bottom line is that so many times I look at a toy and just don't know what's in it. Honestly there have been stays of enforcement on the CPSIA laws and I can't quite figure out which thing is banned and when. Many manufacturers are also selling off old products that will no longer be safe at a certain point when laws go into effect, but are okay to be sold now. Have you noticed the rubber ducks everywhere, packaged in with other toys and gift baskets? I got an Oriental Trading Company catalog recently and they had an enormous lot of rubber duckies for some insanely cheap price. No thanks.
I can go to the effort to contact every manufacturer (and I have quite often done so) and figure out whether or not my particular toy contains BPA, phthalates, or PVC, but more and more we are simply choosing natural toys that we know are safe. Toys are not labeled "contains BPA", nor are they required to be. Manufacturers aren't required to tell you what is in a toy and will sometimes reply to an inquiry with something along the lines of claiming that their toy doesn't leach BPA, or is non-toxic, or is compliant with government regulations at this time. Wording meant to creatively skirt the questions.
Plastics are petroleum based and are filling up our landfills and oceans. They are rarely recyclable and often break easily. Natural toys are much more durable, and often more open ended in their play options (no batteries, flashing lights, etc). Although natural toys can be more expensive, we have been focusing on purchasing one high quality item instead of several inexpensive toys that won't last long. Our house is small as it is, so limiting what comes into our home is a necessity. We do have some plastics - Lego is a reputable brand and uses a safer type of plastic, Green Toys uses recycled milk jugs to make their sturdy toys, and yes, we do have some (toxic) Little People just because the girls love to play with them. I have a basket of baby toys and these are all natural wooden or cloth toys. Here is a great article about natural toys.
As far as toy safety, I purchase toys from manufacturers that I trust. I don't necessarily trust the "natural" toys that are popping up at large retail stores. Just because something is made of wood doesn't make it safe. What type of glue holds it together? What type of paint is used on it? I look for a water based stain that shows the wood grain rather than a thick coating of paint that could be toxic or peel off. Things like art supplies, music, and books can still be purchased at super stores. Try thinking outside the box and invest in a zoo membership, aquatic center pass, museum gift certificate, or make a coupon book of visits to the park. The saying is true - homemade gifts are often the best. I've posted a few ideas for homemade toys on my blog and you can find more by searching the internet.
I hope this gets you started thinking about safe toy choices for your families. I have a couple more reviews and discount codes coming up, so stay tuned!