You’ve heard of NIMBY, “not-in-my-backyard,” haven’t you? Well there’s a new acronym, NIMTR, or “not-in-my-therapy-treatment-room!” Speech-language pathologists are inundated by catalogs filled with wonderful colorful, fragrant, pliable toys as treatment materials. We use these every day with our students, our clients in clinics, our bedside patients. But how much do we really know about the safety and makeup of those therapy materials your shrinking budget dollars are purchasing every year?
Some interesting facts about toys
Toys are BIG business. Just visit any mall in America or website such as Amazon.com. Worldwide, over 80 billion dollars were spent on toys in 2009, with more than a quarter of that money consumed in the United States. The latest figures by the Toy Industry Association Inc., places the annual U.S. domestic toy market at $22 billion in 2012. Of this, $6.63 billion covers toys and articles for infants and toddlers, puzzles and games, and arts and crafts. I mention these specific categories because they are materials most likely to be used by SLPs working with young children in early intervention, preschool, or school settings.
So many toys … but are they safe?
The United States imports many more toys from foreign countries compared to its exports. China, Japan, Mexico, Canada and Denmark lead the way in toy imports. Since other countries do not implement the same environmental protections in manufacturing as we do in the states, the question of safety looms large. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is the main body responsible for overseeing the safety and recall of unsafe toys and products manufactured in or imported into the United States. In 2012, the CPSC released a new risk assessment tool to help improve the screening of imported products. About 5 percent of the total number of these screenings identified children’s products. One example: a shipment of 28,000 baby bottles imported by Dollar Tree was seized after determining they were defective and unsafe using the new risk assessment tool. You can read more about the successes of CPSC online.
The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 made it mandatory for all toys aimed at children under the age of 14 to meet new federal safety standards. Some of these include testing lead content and concentration of phthalates (DEHP, DBP and BBP* in particular). Here is a video to see how CPSC works collaboratively with other government agencies to seize toy imports that are unsafe for children.
Even though we have protections, toys of questionable safety continue to enter the consumer market. Recently DNAinfo in New York released this alarming report, which shows many toys in stores tested positive for elevated levels of toxic substances, including phthalates, which have been found to be associated with asthma, birth defects and hormone disruption, among other health problems. One item on the list, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pencil case manufactured by Innovative Design was found to contain 150 times the legal phthalate limit for toys. But alas, currently, it does not qualify as a toy under federal regulations.
What if it’s not a toy?
And that’s a good point: Sometimes SLPs use materials in their practice that are not toys. Like the pencil case mentioned above or what about commonly used rubber tubing that a speech-language pathologist may use during treatment for oral exercises? Would such rubber tubing be considered a toy, a medical device, or something else? Who oversees the safety of products such as these?
Two organizations responsible for developing standards of safety are the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in Switzerland and the American Society for Testing and Materials International based in Pennsylvania. Both provide standards to industries that produce just about everything, from iron bolts to bathmats. Each provides standards for purchase to companies, who in turn use the standards to manufacture and distribute their product to specification. I contacted both these organizations to find what standards exist for the rubber tubing example. As of this writing, no responses to my request have been received.
What’s an SLP to do?
So what can you do to ensure that the materials you use with your students and clients are safe? Here are a few suggestions:
- If you are purchasing from a distributor online, check their website for more information. For example, SuperDuper Publications places a Product Safety statement on their website and invites customers to email them for more information. Companies who openly provide statements such as these make it easier for the consumer to trust the safety of their purchases. If you cannot find information on product safety or product testing, email the company and ask for it.
- Check the CPSC’s website for toy and product recalls. You can find the latest recalls, search for recalls by product name or by country of manufacture, and also report an unsafe product.
- Read the manual! Electronics such as iPads and tablets come with a manual that will often provide the ISO or ASTM Int’l standard used to insure safety and will list potential hazards.
- Contact the manufacturer of the product and ask for the MSDS – materials safety data sheet. This would be a good choice if the product you have or consider purchasing lacks a manual or an information sheet on standards testing. You also can look up a product by name and manufacturer on the MSDS website. On this site a search for “rubber tube” gave me 34 hits. While searches can be daunting and time consuming, the insurance of safety provides peace of mind to you and the clients on your caseload.
- Avoid buying inexpensive toys or materials from questionable sources such as street vendors.
Informed SLPs can now approach their materials purchases with a new savvy. Next time you are tempted to buy inexpensive therapy materials composed of questionable ingredients, just say “NIMTR”!!!!
Anastasia Antoniadis is with the Tuscarora (PA) Intermediate Unit and works as a state consultant for Early Intervention Technical Assistance through the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network. She earned a Master of Arts degree in speech pathology from City College of the City University of New York and a Master’s degree in public health from Temple University. She was a practicing pediatric SLP for 14 years before becoming an early childhood consultant for Pennsylvania’s early intervention system. Her public health studies have been in the area of environmental health and data mapping using geographic information system technology. You can follow her on Twitter @SLPS4HlthySchools.