Photo courtesy Carolien Dekeersmaeker, flickr creative commons

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Looking for some last-minute gifts? A North Carolina-based organization wants to take the worry out of buying toys.

By Gabe Rivin

Holiday shopping can be uniquely frustrating, with long lines at the mall and overflowing parking lots.

But for Beth Messersmith, finding the right present can be especially challenging. That’s because Messersmith, like numerous parents in North Carolina, is wary of toxic chemicals lurking in children’s toys, and wants to make sure she buys something that won’t harm her family members’ health.

“I’m looking at my kids’ wish list, and I want to know what’s in those products that I’m giving them to put their hands on every day,” she said. “And I feel doubly that about my little nephew, who’s not only going to hold it and touch it, but he’s going to put it in his mouth.”

Messersmith isn’t just a concerned parent, she’s also the North Carolina campaign director at MomsRising, a national advocacy organization with a broad political agenda.

One of the group’s top priorities is the reform of toxic-chemicals laws. The laws, according to Messermsmith, are the reason that parents like her feel anxiety around the holiday season, as they try to find non-toxic toys for young children. Consumers are unable to measure toys’ safety, since toys’ chemical ingredients remain hidden from view, she said.

“The more I learned about toxic chemicals and their effects on our children, and just how much we don’t know about them, made me really frustrated,” she said

Many rubber ducks contain high levels of phthalates, according to this year’s U.S. PIRG report. That’s a concern because young children frequently put the toys into their mouths. Photo courtesy msbhaven, flickr creative commons

Messersmith isn’t alone in her concerns. According to advocacy groups and government agencies, toys come bundled with several safety risks for children, including their potential to expose children to toxics.

In a report released this month, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit organization, said it found concerning levels of toxic chemicals in five, broadly available toys. Those included toy sheriff and police badges, which had elevated levels of lead, and Hello Kitty hairclips, which contained elevated levels of phthalates.

Lead can cause neurological harm, and young children are especially susceptible to its effects, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The metal, which is used in plastics as a softener, can turn into inhalable dust if exposed to sunlight, according to the PIRG report.

And some phthalates, also used to soften plastic, can potentially affect children’s reproductive systems. Children can be exposed to phthalates by chewing on soft vinyl toys, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Messersmith’s organization is working to reform laws so that parents won’t have to worry about the chemical safety of their children’s toys. But in the meantime, the group is educating parents so that, come holiday time, they won’t feel burdened by the search for non-toxic toys – on top of the already-challenging quest to find the right present.

A formula to mobilize busy parents

Like other advocacy groups, MomsRising accomplishes its mission through a multi-pronged approach: online, in group gatherings and in the offices of lawmakers. The group now boasts over a million members nationally, with about 37,000 in North Carolina.

Its blog is an active hub of opinion writing and news analysis. And as with advocacy platforms like Change.org, MomsRising ties its blogs to a series of digital petitions aimed at lawmakers and others.

But MomsRising also conducts traditional, on-the-ground lobbying and education sessions for lawmakers. It focuses its efforts both at state and federal levels.

U.S. PIRG identified a number of toys containing toxics that pose potential toxic-ingredient hazards to children. Photo courtesy U.S. PIRG

In 2011, for example, MomsRising led a group of parents and children into the Raleigh office of now-outgoing U.S. Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, where the group called on Hagan to support legislation that would reform toxic-chemicals laws.

MomsRising also puts together entertaining events for its members, like a recent non-toxic arts-and-crafts party for parents and children.

How to buy non-toxic gifts

As part of its work in North Carolina, MomsRising has led educational sessions for parents about toxic chemicals and teaches parents how to shop for non-toxic products.

Beth Messersmith, the North Carolina campaign director for MomsRising, a national group that educates parents about toxic chemicals in children’s toys. Photo credit: Gabe Rivin

When buying toys, for example, Messersmith recommended that parents look for gifts made with more basic chemical ingredients, like lead paint-free wooden toys and cloth dolls.

They’re the sorts of products you can find at Nest Organics, a shop in downtown Asheville that specializes in non-toxic products, including children’s toys .

Sarah Easterling, the store’s co-owner, said that demand for non-toxic toys jumps during the holiday season. Yet, despite its strong holiday business, Nest Organic’s sales likely pale in comparison to those of Toys “R” Us, Easterling said.

Part of the problem has to do with information, she said.

“Certainly in Asheville the awareness [about toxic chemicals] is higher than a lot of other places, because it is a more alternative town,” she said. Still, she added, “So many people don’t know what’s in their baby’s and children’s toys.”

Photo courtesy Carolien Dekeersmaeker, flickr creative commons

Parents may also doubt that toys can potentially be toxic, Easterling said.

“It’s really hard for people to believe that somebody would knowingly manufacture and sell something to a child that is harmful,” she said. “Realistically, that’s the case in hundreds and thousands of different products.”

Looking for policy change

MomsRising’s Messersmith said that though it’s best to buy non-toxic products, consumers are ultimately limited when trying to minimize exposure to toxic chemicals.

“The real answer is, this isn’t something you can shop your way out of,” she said.

Instead, policymakers need to enact broad reforms of chemicals laws, she said.

Currently, the federal government relies on the Toxic Substances Control Act to regulate toxic chemicals in consumer products. But many – including environmental groups, the chemicals industry and government agencies – say that the law does little to protect consumers or to give them confidence in the safety of their products.

As Congress continues to linger on the issue, states have begun to pick up the work.

That includes North Carolina, where Sen. Stan Bingham (R-Denton) plans to introduce legislation during the long session of the General Assembly in 2015 that would ban several toxics from consumer products.

“These are toxic chemicals that affect children and pregnant women,” Bingham said, adding that the ban “will definitely affect children’s toys.”

Bingham was in his Denton office when reached for an interview, and wasn’t able to comment on the specifics of the bill. But he did say he expects it to have broad support, including from the state’s Child Fatality Task Force, a legislative commission that makes recommendations to the General Assembly.

MomsRising has worked with Bingham to craft the bill, a version of which was introduced in 2013 but never made it past the committee level .

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Gabe Rivin

Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...

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