A mix of old love, thriftiness, and desire to cut down on waste has us handing down toys from one generation to another. But are vintage toys safe?
We all have a soft spot for our favorite childhood toys. Some of us don’t even have to thrift to find, for instance, an original Rainbow Brite doll. Bags of our beloved old toys live at their grandparents’ house and the kids practically have a ready-to-go playroom thanks to our retired plastic playsets, discarded Twister games, and preloved dolls and trucks.
Reusing old toys is certainly very minimalista. But are vintage toys safe?
Unfortunately, if you ask the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the answer is a big old “no.” Congress passed a law in 2008 that set the current federal safety standards for all toys made in or imported into the United States. Anything made before 2008 didn’t have to meet those standards, and therefore could contain high levels of lead paint or toxic phthalates — or have myriad other problems.
“Vintage toys should be kept on a shelf for your enjoyment, not for a child to play with,” says Patty Davis, Deputy Director of the CPSC Office of Communications and the agency’s Press Secretary. Womp womp.
Lead paint, surprisingly, was still a problem with nearly a million recalled toys as recently as 2007, thus the new law in 2008. It was only in 2017 that the industry began to most tightly guard against phthalates, toxic chemicals that give plastics a soft quality. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing the level of phthalates in an old toy just by looking at it.
There are other hazards you want to avoid when you’re introducing old toys too. Small parts are choking hazards, so toddlers shouldn’t be monkeying around with, say, old Monopoly pieces. Oh, and magnets are terrible if a child ingests one, and older toys were not always flagged for magnets. Finally, there’s the issue of your vintage Strawberry Shortcake no longer having her packaging, so it’s impossible to easily check if she’s meant for kids 3 and up, or 5 and up, or what. Age-grading matters for safety, especially when it comes to choking hazards. (And I remember how small Strawberry’s shoes were.)
You don’t have to ditch your old toys altogether, Davis says. You can wait until your kids are old enough to appreciate them, aka not play with them, and then pass them down.
Or, if you want to be more real, just wait until your kid is old enough to not put toys in their mouth. If you’re taking out an old train set for your school-age kid, be sure they’re good about washing hands after playing. Even the original Cabbage Patch dolls, with their squeezable fabric bodies, have plastic heads that were made decades before the current regulations. Touching phthalate-rich plastic isn’t gonna kill your kid — if it did, we’d all be dead by now. But exposure does add up and the chemicals are now regulated for a reason.
In general the older the toy, the more sketchy stuff (my scientific term) it’s likely to have. For instance, a 2018 study in the UK of the migrating toxins from old toys showed that red and yellow LEGO bricks from the ‘70s tested high for levels of Cadmium — a heavy metal linked to cancer as well as liver and kidney problems if someone is repeatedly exposed — while red and yellow LEGO bricks from the ‘90s showed none. It’s a pretty safe bet that the newer a toy is, the safer it is.
Or there is one more option, Davis says, which is more earth-friendly: Take hand-me-downs from friends, relatives, neighbors, and thrift stores that can assure you the toys are from the last fourteen years, or ideally the last five years. This way you’re not passing down vintage toys, but recently made, gently loved playthings. For extra safety, do a check for recalls at the CPSC recall site. Then put your beloved old Cabbage Patch Doll in a place of honor. Your kids will never love her the way that you did anyway.
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