by Lesley D. Biswas
- India -
The annual Bidhannagar Fair at Kolkata’s Central Park is a swarm of enthusiastic children and their parents. Amidst the tangle of toy vendors and the squeaking and jarring sounds of their toys, seven-year-old Khushi picks out a plastic doll. Brightly colored, the doll is Barbie’s clone, the only difference is that it costs a mere INR 30 (0.64 USD). It’s a cheap substitute for the popular brand and it’s dangerously toxic.
The CSE randomly selected samples of 24 products from major toy manufacturing countries like China, Taiwan, Thailand and India and found that all samples contained phthalates, 46% of which exceeded international safety limits. Blaming the government for its lack of regulation, Kushal Pal Singh Yadav, head of CSE’s toxics team says, “One of the toys that contained the highest toxins was labeled safe for children. Many toys carrying a ‘non-toxic’ label fell short of international safety standards.”
The risk Indian children face is enormous as most parents rely greatly on warning labels to guarantee product safety. A study published in the Journal of Community Medicine by the Department of Community Medicine examined 50 middle class parents, the chief consumers of cheap toys. Of the parents surveyed, all reported believing it’s the government’s responsibility to check and scrutinize toys for harmful chemicals. Only 37% were aware of toxins in cheap toys. But shockingly, even after finding out that the toys they had purchased were toxic, only 15 parents discarded them. The remaining 22 hung onto their toys, some citing the money they spent to buy them.
Toxics Link, another Delhi-based NGO, conducted a survey in 2007 on toxic toys sold in Indian markets. Out of 111 toys, 77 had toxic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) materials and 88 samples showed lead and cadmium content - toxins associated with brain and nervous system damage, as well as male reproductive system damage in children. Prashant Rajankar, Senior Program Officer at Toxics Link expresses great concern for PVC toys containing lead and cadmium. Used as stabilizers, the toxins leach out when children chew and mouth the plastic.
In 2009, Indian legislators imposed a temporary ban on toxic toy imports from China after studies found that many of the sub-standard toy samples surveyed came from this toy-producing giant. At the same time Mattel, the world’s largest toy maker, recalled over 18 million Chinese-made toys from the worldwide market. The ban was reinforced after it lapsed in January, but with no parallel regulations tightened on Indian toy manufacturers, whose toys were also found lacking in safety standards.
“The ban on toxic toy imports does not protect our children considering there is no quality regulation of our domestic toy manufacturers,” asserts Yadav. “Our study reveals that cheap Indian toys contain the same amount of harmful chemicals. We’re in urgent need of a strong monitoring system to ban use of phthalates in toys and a set of safety standards for Indian toy manufactures as well.”
At the root of the toxic toy problem in India is the regulatory system. It’s only mandatory for those toy manufacturers who export toys to register with the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), whose standards are limited to mechanical, physical and inflammability aspects of toys with no reference whatsoever to use of phthalates. It’s estimated that almost 90% of producers in India’s domestic toy industry are beyond government control, belonging to its unorganized sector where standards are self-regulatory.
Khushi is too young to understand the implications of toxic toys and even after her parents are briefed about the irreversible damage the doll could cause their daughter’s health, they’re still unwilling to spend a little more money to ensure her safety. “We cannot afford a real Barbie doll,” her mother says. At around INR 500 ($10.77 USD), Barbie is considerably more expensive than her cheap, toxic substitute. But all her friends have the same toy, Khushi’s mother reasons. “If we don’t get her this doll, she’ll just play with theirs.”
Compounding such low levels of consumer awareness, legal procedure is difficult hurdle to overcome in India. And the District Consumer Redressal Forums that are authorized to enforce The Consumer Protection Act don’t file complaints until medical evidence is provided.
“To establish its potential danger and to force retailers to remove the product from the shelf, medical evidence is required stating the health problem occurred due to the toy,” explains M. Mondal, Joint Secretary of Vigilance, Department of Consumer Affairs in West Bengal.
The system is also, in essence, regulating itself. S. Saroja, Legal and Complaints Advisor of Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group’s Consumer Protection Wing says, “Consumers suspecting that toys are of sub-standard quality [have to] send samples for testing to government authorized laboratories and based on the report, file a complaint for unfair trade practice.”
In many cases, when health problems from toxins finally surface, it is often too late for medical intervention. As a result, a battle is underway as public interest groups pressure the government to take urgent steps to safeguard children’s safety. But with the livelihoods of millions of retailers, wholesalers and toy dealers dependent on India’s $510 million USD toy industry and cheap toy imports flooding in from China, theirs is an uphill task. In his appeal for better policies, Rajankar of Toxics Link suggests that the entire issue of standards be re-visited and made compulsory.
But perhaps even more transformative in the short run, Yadav calls for more vigilant parenting. “Parents need to exercise their purchasing power and not buy any plastic toy that is soft,” he explains. “Soft plastic is a sign of a high count of the phthalates associated with causing health disorders.”
Despite scientific evidence and a precautionary ban on the use of phthalates in toys and childcare products by developed nations, the Indian government has yet to protect the health of its most vulnerable citizens. Since a ban alone isn’t the answer, consumers - particularly parents - must get directly involved in making better choices for their children.
About the Author
Lesley D. Biswas is a freelance creative writer and journalist based in Kolkata, India. She has written extensively for the past eleven years on sports, gardening, women and youth issues. Her articles have appeared both in print and online for publications such as the Woman’s Era, Reader's Digest, Funds for Writers, 4indianwoman, Kolkata Mirror and East Kolkata, among others.