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As a mom who happens to be a scientist at an environmental health organization, I got a jump on cleaning the lead-laden toys out of my daughter's toy box.

Late in 2006, a big box arrived in my office with a high-tech gizmo called an XRF Analyzer, on loan from a national coalition. This x-ray gun can generate near-instantaneous information on the toxic chemicals, such as lead and arsenic, in everyday items. With the XRF in hand, I visited a number of friends' homes to test their televisions, furniture, clothing, and toys for toxic flame retardants. I was as surprised as anyone when my testing turned up copious amounts of lead in household items like rain jackets and toys.

One of the most disturbing trends I noticed in the testing was that products designed for children appeared to actually be more likely to be contaminated with toxic chemicals, including chemicals like lead that have long been known to threaten kids' health. So after getting rid of the offensive products in my home and my friends' homes, I decided to look further. In 2007, the Washington Toxics Coalition research team launched an effort to find out more broadly what toxic chemicals were being used to make toys and other children's products.

We spent the summer testing toys with the XRF, and joined with our colleagues at the Michigan-based Ecology Center and other organizations around the country to create Healthytoys.org, a new on-line resource for parents to find out what's in the toy box. With information on the toxic content of 1,200 toys and children's products, Healthytoys.org is the largest resource yet for consumers to get the information they need to choose the safest toys.

What we found in our testing was eye-opening. Fully a third of the toys we tested were positive for lead, and one in six toys had lead detections higher than the recall standard for lead paint. Almost half the toys we tested were made of PVC plastic, making many likely to contain the softeners known as phthalates that have been linked to reproductive harm.

Of course, the real solution to making our toys safer shouldn't rely on scrappy groups like the Washington Toxics Coalition and Ecology Center testing armloads of toys purchased at the local Target. We've discovered the very disturbing news that high-profile recalls and million-dollar losses aren't enough to shape up the industry. Now it's time for our policymakers to step up and hold manufacturers accountable for keeping toxic chemicals out of the toys our kids play with.


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