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Major European project finds high phthalates levels in toys

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A joint customs and market surveillance operation by four EU countries has found that of 104 samples of toys it checked, more than a third contained illegal levels of phthalates.

And 92% of the offending items carried the CE marking that indicates conformity with health, safety, and environmental protection standards for products sold within the European Economic Area.

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia inspected samples from 438 consignments of 2.25m pieces of toys from China, between September and October last year.

The inspections focused on those plasticised toys – especially dolls – thought to present a high risk because of suspected concentrations of phthalates exceeding restrictions under REACH Annex XVII articles 51 and 52.

Three of the phthalates found – DEHP, DBP and BBP – are on the REACH candidate list of SVHCs due to their reprotoxic and endocrine disrupting properties. The others are DINP, DIDP and DNOP.

Speaking to Chemical Watch after a European Commission conference on REACH, CLP and biocides enforcement in November, Anna Kobylecka, from the customs department at the Polish ministry of finance, said the aim of the project "was not to determine the percentage of safe products imported via the countries, but to ensure that dangerous products are not released for free circulation".

What was "worrying", she added, was that the high level of toys with excessive levels of phthalates that had the CE marking was a declaration by the producer that all the relevant requirements were met at production stage.

The enforcers blocked more than 722,000 toys from the market during the initial stage of control. At a later stage some toys were rectified and released for free circulation, she said. Certain toys were re-exported when importers did not want to take corrective measures on labelling or providing warnings or instructions.

National market surveillance authorities destroyed 31,590 toys because their suspected high levels of phthalates were deemed a "serious risk".

Following the control measure 21 notifications were made to the EU’s Rapid Alert System (Rapex) for dangerous non-food products.

Practical solutions

In a Q&A session at the Commission conference, Mauro Scalia from textiles and apparel industry association Euratex said the findings suggest testing is needed on individual products, but asked: "do we have the right tools or do we need different tools?"

The EU textiles sector, he said, imports 22bn products, while 4bn are made in the European Union. "Less than 1%" of the imports are checked by member states.

"As customs we believe that we have the proper tools because we are the ones to stop the goods, to choose and target for controls and we have proper legislation and powers to do it," Ms Kobylecka said.

It is really a question for enforcement authorities, she added, as to whether they have enough resources to conduct laboratory checks of all products. "Of course it’s not possible." For the time being, she said, authorities should check that products meet formal requirements.

Mike Potts, from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), said Britain does two things:

  • it ensures accurate targeting: this enables inspectors to test as many non-compliant products as possible; and
  • it looks at the testing companies, such as large importers, undertake. The HSE will contact a company and ask about their testing strategy, what questions they ask suppliers and the kind of contracts they have with non-EU suppliers to require them not use restricted substances or SVHCs.

Michael Flueh from the Commission agreed it is impossible to control 100% of products. "The first responsibility is the source doing the business" to make sure marketed products are compliant, he said.

"We have taken recently new measures on CMRs [carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic substances] in textiles. So this is already an indicator target on which enforcement authorities might focus in the future," he added.

Last year a REACH-En-Force-4 (Ref-4) project found almost a fifth of toys checked on the European market were non-compliant with an EU restriction on phthalates. Coordinated by Echa’s Enforcement Forum, it looked at 14 restriction entries in REACH Annex XVII across 29 countries.

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