How to buy a safe wooden toy in AustraliaBy Ian Allan
Buying a safe wooden toy in Australia can be tricky. Wooden toys have a great reputation for being a thoughtful and sustainable buying choice. Good quality, eco-friendly wooden toys usually don’t contain the toxic chemicals that are found in many plastic toys. I say “usually” because not all wooden toys are created equal.
Some wooden toys contain toxic glues and paints. Cheap, low-quality wooden toys are the main offenders, but they are not the only ones. Consider this worst case scenario…
Your child’s favourite toy is a 1960s hand-me-down. The toy was adored by its grandparent when they were little. These days the paint is a little flaky. But your child doesn’t care. Its still fun to chew on!
There are five parts to the toxic children’s toy problem
- Children are small: Children are physically closer to the things they relate to than adults are. Arms-length has a different meaning for a child than it does for an adult.
- Developmental phase: Fast growing young bodies absorb toxins more readily than adults do.
- Patterns of play: Young children chew and smell their toys routinely. They will have greater exposure to toxins if its their favourite toy.
- Toxins in glues: Unless labelled otherwise, you should assume a wooden toy contains formaldehyde glues.
- Toxins in paints: Unless labelled otherwise, the paints on wooden toys are likely to contain lead. Even those toys meeting the Australian Toy Standard can have traces of lead. Old painted toys and some directly-imported Chinese toys can contain very high amounts of lead.
- Sensible understanding of the problem: You should not be alarmed at reading this blog post. Rather, you should use the following information to sensibly monitor the way your child interacts with wooden toys as they grow and adjust your reaction accordingly.
Due to the way they play, children can have greater exposure to toxins than adults. Because they’re experimenting with their sense of taste and sense of smell, some children will chew and smell their favourite toy all day if you let them. If their toy contains leaded paint or formaldehyde glues, then this exposure is happening at a time when their fast-growing bodies will readily absorb the toxins being offered to it.
Formaldehyde is a respiratory irritant in high doses, and a carcinogen in small doses over long periods.
Most pressed wood products contain formaldehyde. Unless wooden toys are labelled as being formaldehyde-free, you should assume its there. The good news is that formaldehyde de-gasses over time. That means that the greatest danger, often short-lived, is with new wooden toys that are delivered in tightly sealed packaging. Formaldehyde is the most likely culprit of the waft of “stink” when you unpack some toys.
The good news is that there is only so much formaldehyde gas that can be released from a new toy. Much like a car air freshener, it has a strong smell when you unwrap it, but after a while you can’t smell it.
This process is called off-gassing. Wooden toys will off-gas if they’re placed in an airy space such as a garage for a week or so. After that, only warm or humid conditions will increase the risk of any remaining formaldehyde gasses being mobilized.
If the toy is painted then the formaldehyde is sealed and so should not be a concern. The paint used to paint the toy however, presents another problem because paint can be toxic too.
Cheap wooden toys and old wooden toys in Australia are often painted with lead based paint. Exposure can cause issues with a child’s behaviour and intelligence. The main ways that children absorb lead from paint seems to be from swallowing paint chips and by sniffing or tasting lead paint dust. If you live in an old home, skirting boards painted with lead paint are a common source of lead. There are plenty of web resources delaing with house paint issues.
Lead accumulates in your body, and children absorb it more readily than adults do.
Lead paints have many characteristics that make them attractive to toy manufacturers. They dry faster, are easier to apply to hard surfaces, are more durable, and are more moisture resistant. Also, because lead pigments are highly opaque, they go further and produce richer paint colours.
There is a price driver too. In China, lead based paints are much cheaper than unleaded paints and so their use is sometimes seen as a way to bring production costs down. Even though China has standards that should prevent the use of leaded paint for toys, some say that these standards are rarely enforced.
Cheap, direct-from-China wooden toys from online auction sites are prime candidates for having been painted with lead based paint. Do not buy them!
Op-shop and hand-me-down toys
Until the 1970s Australian paint was allowed to contain 50% lead. That level was drastically reduced in the 1990s. Lead was not banned though. The current Australian Toy Standard allows paints with safe levels of lead to be used. This means that some wooden toys in Australia, even those meeting Australian Standards, may be painted with paint that contains lead.
Things you can do
If you’re concerned about toxic wooden toys in Australia, in a practical sense, your level of concern should be matched to the way your child plays with their wooden toys, and their age. It’s important to be sensible about this. Because lead was used so extensively in the building undustry prior to the 1980s, lead is literally everywhere in the urban environment. That means that you need to aim to limit your child’s exposure to lead because you’ll never omit it. Be alert but not alarmed…
- Don’t have any old toys with flaky paint in the toy box.
- Be very concerned about what very young children play with. Because they’ll readily put anything in their mouth don’t let them play with painted toys, particularly old toys, especially if you don’t know the toy’s pedigree.
- Do not buy wooden toys directly from China via online auction sites. Such toys are less likely to comply with Australian Standards.
- Do not buy wooden toys from Op shops, even new ones, unless you are sure of its pedigree. These may not comply with current Australian toy Standards.
- Avoid inherited painted wooden toys. Many pre 1980s paints were extremely high in lead content. Antique and retro painted wooden toys should be for display only.
- Do not allow wooden toys (especially new ones) to sit in unvented warm humid environments. This is when formaldehyde gas becomes active.
- Dispose of suspect toys. Do not give them away!
Why buy wooden toys then?
Having just read all that bad stuff about wooden toys in Australia, why should you still be interested in buying a wooden toy for the child in your life. The answer is that not all wooden toys are bad!
Wooden toys are safe: Wooden toys are strong and sturdy by comparison to cheap plastic toys. Some plastic toys can become brittle over time and break easily. Sometimes the break can leave sharp edges and small choking hazards.
Compared to most plastic, wood is a sustainable, recyclable and biodegradable material. Wooden toys are less likely to be thrown away, and if they are, their impact in landfill will be less than plastics and the batteries often used in plastic toys.
Wooden toys are durable: Quality wooden toys can endure rough treatment and are more likely to be dented than broken. This makes them candidates for being the favourite toy for many children, not just one.
Wooden toys are environmentally sound and eco-friendly: In her blog post called “The Reality Of Christmas Gifts and Landfill”, Narissa Bentley shows that around 2/3 of all Christmas gifts are unwanted and end up in landfill. So, if you’re given a toy that you don’t like, be sure to donate it to charity.
At MyScallywag, our wooden kids toys and wooden baby toys are eco-friendly and safe. All the woods, glues, dyes and paints in our Plan Toys range are non-toxic. Our other wooden toys comply with the current Australian Toy Standard.
Photo by Naitian（Tony） Wang on Unsplash