Toxicity in toys no child’s play for Indian scientists

August 1st, 2010 - 1:26 pm ICT by IANS  

By Mohammed Shafeeq
Hyderabad, Aug 1 (IANS) Screening toys made in India and abroad for toxicity - as per the Supreme Court’s direction - is turning out to be easier said than done, as much of the estimated Rs.2,500 crore (over $535 million) market is unregulated, say scientists.

Experts from the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad, National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad, and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, have taken up the uphill task.

“We have decided to collect 2,560 samples from four zones,” B. Dinesh Kumar, assistant director of NIN, told IANS. The collection of samples is expected to begin in August and the scientists are confident of coming out with an interim report covering over 200 samples by the yearend.

With no safety standards for the toys and lack of basic data about the market, the labs are focussing on standardising the process before screening the toys available in the market.

The scientists are collecting branded, unbranded (Indian and foreign), coated and uncoated toys from all four zones of the country. The toys will be collected in three categories of teethers, standard dolls and animal shape toys.

Learning from the failure in conducting similar tests on soft drinks in the past, the labs have first embarked on accrediting the procedure for estimation of heavy metals.

NIN has imported special equipment from Germany to crush toys and test them. The project has a budget of Rs.5 crore and the labs have so far spent Rs.25 lakh.

However, scientists feel conducting such a study in a big country like India is not an easy job.

“This is unregulated business. We don’t even know how many toy manufacturing units are there. The toys available in the markets don’t even carry the name of the manufacturer or its address. In such a situation how are we going to fix the accountability?” asked a scientist.

According to studies conducted by some NGOs, including the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), toys manufactured in India and abroad have a high content of heavy metals.

According to a CSE study, the toys contain dangerous phthalates that can cause serious health disorders such as asthma, skeletal defects, damage the male reproductive system and impair the lungs of children besides causing allergies if exposed to unsafe levels.

Some studies singled out Chinese toys. India had banned some Chinese toys last year but later lifted the ban after China decided to move the International Court of Justice against the ban.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) asked the three institutions to take up the study after the Supreme Court in November took interest in the case on a petition by some NGOs.

The petitioners argued that Chinese toys are coated with heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, which can be poisonous and can have cognitive impact on the human brain.

Scientists at NIN point out that the toy makers coat the toys using heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and phthalates for stability of toys and the pigmentation.

“Heavy metal poisoning leads to common toxicities, especially among malnutritioned children. It inhibits the enzyme system, results in weak IQ, anaemia, retarded growth and causes irreparable damage to the organ system and nervous system,” said Dinesh Kumar, who heads the Food and Drug Toxicology Research Centre at NIN.

However, sources said the concern in some quarters may not be purely on public health grounds. There may be business interests involved.

“A Barbie doll made in the US or Europe costs Rs.1,000. The same made in China costs Rs.200 and India Rs.150. Customers prefer Chinese toys because they are attractive. Indian customers are ready to pay Rs.50 more for a good toy,” said an industry source.

The toy market in India is estimated at Rs.2,500 crore. About 70 percent of all toys sold in India come from China.

(Mohammed Shafeeq can be contacted at m.shafeeq@ians.in)

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