No childs play

Published : Oct 05, 2007 00:00 IST

The Toxics Link study found high concentrations of lead in all samples of soft toys containing PVC. Even trace amounts of lead are dangerous to children. - PICTURES COURTESY: LEO MATTEL

The Toxics Link study found high concentrations of lead in all samples of soft toys containing PVC. Even trace amounts of lead are dangerous to children. - PICTURES COURTESY: LEO MATTEL

Studies conducted on the toxic levels in everyday items raise questions about the dangers to which Indian consumers are exposed.

The Toxics Link

A STUDY conducted in 2006, which examined toys from Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, reported high levels of cadmium and lead in PVC [polyvinyl chloride] used in soft toys, stated the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on August 31 in reply to a question asked in the Rajya Sabha. As regards safety requirements, the Bureau of Indian Standards [BIS] has published three standards for safety requirements, it said. On September 12, Toxics Link, an organisation that campaigns against toxic pollution, released a follow-up report that is likely to raise further questions on the toxicity exposure of Indian consumers. Titled Brush with Toxics, the study says tests on a broad spectrum of household paints in India revealed that 38 per cent of all samples plastic, enamel and exterior types had lead levels above 600 parts per million (ppm), an international standard formulated by the United States Environment Protection Agency.

While the toxicity standards of plastic and exterior paints were below 1,000 ppm, the permissible level in India, 84 per cent of enamel paint exceeded the mandated standards. According to a number of studies, including one done in 2006 by the World Health Organisation, prolonged lead exposure affects the nervous system. It may cause weakness in joints, increase blood pressure and at high levels severely damage the brain and kidneys. High lead exposure is also correlated with increased chances of miscarriage in women and sterility in men.

While the Ministry of Health is yet to react to the September 12 report, all calls made by Frontline to the Ministry went unanswered. The findings in both reports have raised a number of fundamental questions about the safety of products available in India, particularly on the continued use of metals such as lead and cadmium and the standards regime required to protect users.

Lead has historically been used in the manufacture of paints and plastics for a variety of reasons. A number of early pigments were based on lead compounds such as lead carbonate (commercially known as white lead) and lead chromates, which are white and orange-yellow respectively. Lead is known to improve paint performance by making the paint more durable, corrosion-resistant and fast-drying.

However, there are readily available substitutes for most processes that use lead. White lead in paint, for instance, has been largely replaced by titanium dioxide, a compound deemed safe enough to be used as a colouring agent in toothpaste. In the case of plastics, particularly PVC, lead is used as a stabilising agent to mop up free chlorine radicals generated during PVC synthesis.

Lead and cadmium are also used as pigments in plastics in the form of organo-metallic compounds. However, as the Toxics Link report Toying with Toxics, points out, Stabilisers [in PVC synthesis] are not bound to the polymer, but are freely available to leach out over time or in response to light chewing, etc. Thus, PVC toys present a grave risk to children who tend to chew or suck plastic toys.

In August, Mattel

The Toxics Link study on toys found high concentrations of lead in all samples of soft toys containing PVC. The highest concentrations were found in toys purchased in Mumbai, while Chennai showed the lowest. However, even trace amounts are dangerous to children.

An important question raised after any report on the toxicity of everyday items is that of standards. Most arguments centre on the issue of domestic versus international standards, and an unpacking of the idea of acceptable risk, as was witnessed in the debate following reports on pesticide levels in soft drinks and mineral water.

Given the degree to which toxics have permeated the biosphere one of the most common pathways of lead exposure is from lead-heavy soil standards are a tacit acknowledgement that few products can be entirely toxic free, and that all standards are a reflection of a toxicity-utility trade-off.

The debate on pesticides, for example, spoke of a nutrition-pollution balance where the crucial role of pesticides in increasing crop yields (and hence their inevitable presence in food substances) is balanced against the human bodys need for nutrition and its ability to handle small doses of toxic substances.

Nevertheless, there is little rationale in evolving acceptability standards for heavy metals in products such as toys and paints. In fact, a growing body of literature produced by the WHO and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that there are no safe levels for lead exposure. But the continued use of lead in the paint and toy industries is hard to explain as substitutes are easily available. However, activists allege that the switch-over from lead-based processes will require a one-time investment, which few corporations are willing to make. Besides, moves to ban the use of lead in paint have been scuttled by the lead-producing industry.

The existing Indian standard for maximum lead content in paints is governed by a standard set by the BIS. This requires adherence to an Eco-Mark scheme, which in turn requires that manufacturers ensure that lead concentration remains below 1,000 ppm. The paint samples studied by Toxics Link showed concentrations as high as 14,000 ppm 14 times the limit mandated by Eco-Mark. However, this does not necessarily mean that the companies have broken any laws.

The BIS is essentially a scientific-technical body which recommends parameters and standards, says Dr. Abhay Kumar, author of Brush with Toxics, It is up to the relevant Ministries to make standards mandatory by bringing in necessary legislation. Kumar points out that only a handful of BIS standards are mandatory; others are simply voluntary.

Thus, industries have the option of complying with BIS standards if they want compliance certificates, but they are still free to manufacture and sell their products without compliance marks. Voluntary standards provide a degree of consumer confidence, but are not binding on industry. The recent trend towards outsourcing production and differing global safety standards have made manufacturing standards harder to enforce.

A significant number of the worlds toys are manufactured in China, which recently executed its former Director of State Food and Drug Administration for bribery and dereliction of duty. Products manufactured in China have come under severe scrutiny.

In August, Mattel, the worlds largest toy company, announced a recall of 4,36,000 toys from across the world as they contained impermissible levels of lead. The company stated that all products were sourced from China. Leo Mattel, its Indian tie-up, also announced the withdrawal of 7,500 pieces of accessories of the popular Barbie brand.

The absence of a well-conceived standards regime in India means that consumers are increasingly dependent on voluntary recalls announced by manufacturers. However, until the government acknowledges the need to change from voluntary to mandatory control parameters, a stringent safety regime will remain some way off.

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