How are children exposed to toxic chemicals?
Brightly coloured plastics, dolls or model cars can be found in the hands of children almost everywhere around the world. Simple manufacturing processes and huge global demand has led to the proliferation of cheap, potentially unsafe toys, with many countries importing in bulk to meet demand.
In Nepal between 2016 and 2017, toy imports were worth more than one billion Nepalese Rupees, equivalent to over £7.2m. Yet despite the huge number of toys being imported, there were no regulations on the inclusion of toxic chemicals in children’s toys until 2017.
Children are most vulnerable to the harm caused by toxic chemicals as exposure often occurs during sensitive periods of their development. Lead is one example. Lead has been listed by the World Health Organization among the ten chemicals which pose the biggest threat to public health, with 34 percent of countries now having implemented binding controls on the production, import, sale and use of lead paints.
Decaying lead paint can create contaminated dust which young children easily ingest, and the fact that lead paint has a sweet taste can encourage young children to chew or suck toys coated with paint contaminated by this potentially dangerous metal.
Children’s smaller bodies are also susceptible to lower doses of the substance compared to adults. Preventing childhood exposure is therefore crucial. Yet some parts of the world still use lead and other toxic chemicals, like Bromine, Cadmium and Barium, in household items like children’s toys.
What changed this in Nepal?
The dangerously high levels of heavy metals in children’s toys sold in Nepal had not gone unnoticed. The Center for Public Health and Environmental Development (CEPHED), an environmental NGO in Nepal focusing its research on everyday products containing toxic material, had suspicions that children’s toys might contain unacceptably high levels of several harmful chemicals.
CEPHED had learned about effective campaigning against weak chemical safety standards from IPEN, an organisation focused on bringing international expertise on toxics to the local level. In 2013, under the direction of Ram Charitra Sah, CEPHED’s Executive Director, the organisation planned to test a selection of 100 toys which had been imported, to see which chemicals they contained before presenting their findings to the government.
Using a research fellowship from the United Nations Environment Programme’s Eco-Peace Leadership Center, CEPHED bought 100 toys from different vendors and composed of different materials and negotiated the use of a laboratory owned jointly by the non-profit Handicraft association and Nepal’s ministry of metrology. Sah knew this was the correct approach — after all, how could the government not act on results from their own labs?
“That was our real aim: create some data from a reliable testing laboratory and based on that data advocate for a legislative framework,” Sah explained.
After about three months of work CEPHED staff had tested all of the toys and logged their results. The lab issued a certificate for every toy tested, and the results did not look good for Nepal’s children.
Out of 100 toys, 54 contained dangerous levels of at least one chemical, while 27 had a hazardous level of two toxic elements. A total of 28 of the toys contained levels of lead which could adversely affect children’s health.
CEPHED released the report and the story was picked up by the media, quickly becoming a hot topic in the country. Keen to act quickly, the government contacted CEPHED and set up a meeting with the organisation one week after the report was published.
Sah and his team engaged with the government, trying to cooperate and inform rather than criticising the government for past inaction, and saw a set of regulations enter parliament in short order. These rules, enacted in January 2017, measured the total content of toxic material within toys, and banned those which breached a given threshold.
By enacting these rules Nepal was leading the world, and garnered praise for enacting forward-thinking regulation and for putting children’s right to health above economic interests.
Although CEPHED was initially optimistic about the government’s response, noting that toys which breached standards were being rejected by inspectors at the border, it was not to last.
A step back for children’s health
Citing “errors in terms of defining the value and testing method of harmful chemicals” and claiming to have overlooked World Trade Organization rules on such regulation, the government announced it would implement new guidelines. These new rules are still under consideration, but are expected to move the country towards a weaker stance on toxic chemicals in consumer products.
The new rules would exempt four toxic materials entirely and, instead of monitoring the total concentration of prohibited elements in toys, the rules would simply measure the total amount of a given chemical likely to be absorbed if a child ingested part of a toy, referred to as the ‘migratable elements approach’.
Olga Speranskaya, co-chair of the anti-toxic campaigning organisation IPEN, explained that this way of approaching testing was not necessarily fit for purpose. “The assumption of the method is that exposure only occurs if a child swallows a portion of the product. However, children can be exposed to toxic metals from dust on the surface of products or by chewing and sucking directly on them,” she explained.
Speranskaya added that the process of testing migratable elements was much more difficult for small and medium enterprises compared to determining the total concentration of dangerous elements.
“The potential problem is compounded by industry awareness that regulators in developing and transition countries will not have the time or the money to test migratable toxic metals in many products due to the length and costs associated with the procedure. This leads to concerns that these countries could become vulnerable to manufacturing, using and dumping of children’s products containing toxic metals,” she added.
Why is the government now weakening its own standards?
CRIN approached Nepal’s Ministry of Environment for comment, but the response given by Durga Dawadi, Director General of the country’s Department of Environment, was that government staff are simply “not able to test the toys’ toxicity” due to a lack of trained staff.
Dawadi claimed he had no knowledge of pressure from outside of Nepal, though the government defended the change in the law that same week by blaming the World Trade Organization’s Technical Barriers to Trade agreement, an agreement that forces States to avoid enacting laws which result in unnecessary obstacles to trade . Although other rules prohibiting the import of toys have been highlighted in WTO proceedings there have been no complaints registered against Nepal at the time this article was published.
Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Forests and Environment, Maheshwar Dhakal, explained that the country was adopting limits set out by the International Organization for Standardization, and would rely on countries which export toys to Nepal to produce products that are safe for children.
While Dakhal was eager to point out that the government of Nepal cared about children’s health, he declined to comment on whether the new rules represented a weaker standard of protection for children, and refused to explain what prompted the changes in the government’s approach.
CEPHED and IPEN have alleged that the private sector is behind the change, claiming that the new approach will be “cumbersome and expensive, and relies on assumptions that do not prevent exposure, particularly in children”.
CEPHED’s Executive Director, Ram Charitra Sah, summed up: “The government of Nepal should not put industry interests over the interests of children and public health. Backtracking on the law to allow dangerous chemicals in toys would be a violation the fundamental right of children to health that is ensured by the Constitution of Nepal and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Nepal has been a Party for over 25 years.”