© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
2013 Holiday Programming Specials on WEMU-FM0000017d-4e0c-dda1-a7fd-4fde73b30000Capitol Steps: Politics Takes a Holiday New Year's Edition 2013 7pmMountain Stage at 30: A Radio Retrospective 12/31 - 8PMNew Year's Eve: Toast of the Nation 2013/2014 - 9pm

Issues Of The Environment: More Sustainable Gift Giving For The Holidays

Wikipedia Media Commons

In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair speaks to Dr. Gillian Miller, Senior Scientist for HealthyStuff.org, to discuss avoiding toxic chemicals or environmentally hazardous substances when shopping for gifts.  


   ·  In 2016, President Barack Obamasigned the first significant overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 in more than two decades.  However, most of us are still likely to give or receive a gift this holiday season that is toxic to human health, damaging to the natural environment, or both.

   ·  To avoid unintentionally purchasing toxic presents, it is important to understanding the limitations of the Toxic Substances Control Act, and to be aware that banned substances are commonplace, particularly in cheap, imported products.

Gillian Recommends:

   1.  Consider the lifecycle of the thing you’re considering buying.  Lots of products not made to last; will be landfill soon.  Understanding this can help make more intentional purchases.

   2.  Store receipts.  The Ecology Center will soon release a new study on receipts we tested for toxic chemicals.  Advise people to only get receipts when they need them, to fold them printed side in, and wash hands.

   3.  Avoid synthetic fabrics for clothing and blankets (polyester, fleece); they pollute water with microplastics when laundered; lots of new research (not ours).

   4.   Avoid stain-resistant clothing, furniture, and carpets and Teflon cookware.  Fluorinated chemicals; lots of new research (not ours but we are starting to investigate this area).  So, especially for clothing that will be worn and washed often, go for natural fibers like cotton and no special treatments (stain-resistant, wrinkle-free)

   5.   Toys—Regulations and loopholes with regards to lead and phthalates. 

Consumer advocacy groups are warning parents to be alert for items that contain lead, cadmium, phthalates, or PVC. Lead can lower IQ and cause neurological and behavioral issues. Cadmium and PVC are known carcinogens. (Popular in 2017 are fidget spinners which frequently test out of compliance for lead.) Phthalates are endocrine disruptors that are linked to hormone and reproductive dysfunctions.

  Children’s Toys

Their logic makes sense; of course Santa Claus would never put lead or any other potentially harmful chemical in a toy he was making in the North Pole.  But, the sad reality is that sometimes toys that are left under the tree or gifted through other traditions during the holidays too often do contain harmful chemicals.  And let's be honest, many of these toys end up in our children's mouths- thus directly exposing our munchkins to these toxins.  Let's take a closer look.


  • Lead: According to the EPA (even low levels of) “Lead can cause decreases  IQ, cause nervous system damage and behavioral changes...”  Academic achievement and the ability to pay attention are also affected - and the effects of lead exposure cannot be reversed or corrected.  Can be found in paint and metal toys.
  • Phthalates: These endocrine disrupting chemicals have been linked to reproductive abnormalities in baby boys, reduced testosterone and sperm quality in men and early puberty in girls.  Found in toys that smell artificially and soft plastics.
  • PVC: a known human carcinogen which can also exposure you to lead. Found in soft plastic toys made of vinyl· 
  • Cadmium: a carcinogen. Exposure can also damage the lungs and kidneys and weaken bones.  Can be found in inexpensive metal toys.
  • Formaldehyde: a known carcinogen is commonly found in adhesives used in toys made of plywood or MDF

Tips for Avoiding Toxic Toys

   1. INSTEAD OF: plastic toys, especially cheap plastic toys (birthday loot, Dollar Store etc) TRY THIS: sturdy, heirloom quality natural wood.  Bamboo is another great alternative to plastic.

   2. INSTEAD OF: metal trinkets, like children’s play jewelry, which often contain cadmium a known human carcinogen that has also been linked to learning disabilities.  Metal toys can also contain lead and lead based paint.  TRY THIS: soft cloth toys (ideally organic) or natural wood, especially for play jewelry. Make sure your wooden toys use water-based paints.

   3. INSTEAD OF: products that are made of polyurethane foam (kiddie soft seating, baby changers, possibly anything with padding).  These materials almost can contain flame retardant chemicals, which have been linked to learning disorders, cancer, hormone disruption, infertility and other serious health problems.  TRY THIS: Wool; it is a natural flame retardant (no added chemicals necessary). Also, always read the label.  The law now requires all foam products to have a label that will specify if chemical flame retardants were used in that product.  Look for products that specify no chemical retardants were used. 

   4. INSTEAD OF: Smelly toys; if it smells like plastic, it probably is made of PVC/vinyl which is a known human carcinogen.  If it smells ‘fruity,’ the toy probably contains phthalates, known endocrine disruptors.  TRY THIS: Toys shouldn't smell, let your nose be your guide when picking a safe toy!  That means avoiding fruity and plastic smelling toys! 

   5. INSTEAD OF: Purchasing something that has a ‘BPA free’ label, because it should be safe..... TRY THIS: Choose an alternative to plastic.  It can be cloth, silicon, wood, stainless steel.  Even 'BPA free" plastic can still contain chemicals very similar to BPA and just as bad since they too mimic your hormones. [BPS for example]

Safest materials:  When you are buying for little kids, especially kids who like to place toys in their mouths try to buy toys made out of:

  • Natural solid wood
  • Silicon
  • Cloths (especially organic)
  • Bamboo
  • Books (except waterproof, plastic ones) are always a safe and great choice

Gillian Miller

Gillian brings experience analyzing materials by a variety of spectroscopic techniques in both academia and industry.  An author of many peer-reviewed publications, she also taught university classes in the physical sciences and worked as a scientific editor.  She holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Stanford University, where she focused on novel materials for solar cells.  Gillian enjoys combining laboratory research with advocacy for green chemistry and safer, less toxic consumer products. 

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU todayto keep your community NPR station thriving.

Like 89.1 WEMU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Related Content