NEW DELHI: India may have banned import of Chinese toys till June, but children will continue to be exposed to risks of liver damage or disruption of mental health due to alarming levels of toxic lead and cadmium found in toys that are still being sold, experts maintain.
And with 130 million children in India under the age of six, it is time the government makes it mandatory for Indian manufacturers to adopt the toy safety standard that at present is voluntary and followed only in the organised sector, they add.
"Dangerous levels of lead and cadmium were found in PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and soft toys sold in India," said Ravi Agarwal of non-government forum Toxics Link, which conducted a widely-published study on the safety of toys sold in the metros.
"We found that all toy samples examined contained varying concentration of lead and cadmium," Agarwal told IANS, adding the study was recently presented to the United Nations Environment Programme and the Indian government.
"We did not differentiate between Chinese and Indian toys in the study. But we can say that since the materials used by Indian manufacturers are similar - like paint that has lead and PVC that has cadmium - the toxicity will also be similar."
He said lead and cadmium are proven poisons, being neurotoxins and nephrotoxins. Neurotoxins are agents that can cause toxic effects on the nervous system while nephrotoxins can cause toxic effects on the kidney.
Even the tiniest amounts can have long-term and measurable effects on children, while at the same time displaying no distinctive symptoms. And in the case of lead, some amount is filtered out but the rest is distributed into the blood stream, liver, brain, kidneys and bones.
The Toxics Link study tested 111 toys. It found that 77 had toxic PVC materials; 88 samples that were further tested were found to contain lead and cadmium in varying concentrations.
The results of the study were so alarming that the matter had also figured in parliament last year, when Minister of State for Health Panabaka Lakshmi said in a written reply that the government was seized of the matter concerning toxic toys from China.
As per various estimates available from non-government organisations and industry bodies, the Indian toy market is worth $2.5 billion, of which $1.5 billion is the output of the unorganised sector, over which the government has little control.
While 30 percent of the market is accounted for by soft toys - which along with plastic toys pose the maximum health hazard - imports account for 40 percent of toy merchandise, the bulk of it from China.
"We sell more Chinese toys than Indian, mainly because they are cheaper and give value for money. The bulk of the toys we sell are made of plastic and then come soft toys," Pawan Lal, who owns Lal Cycle and Toys in central Delhi, told IANS.
Now the ban on just Chinese toys, even though Indian toys may also have similar levels of toxicity, has left parents here worried.
"For my daughter - she is just one - everything goes into the mouth. I am going to stack away all her toys and let her play with kitchen utensils. Sounds cruel, but what else can I do?" queried P. Ganesan, a teacher in a play school.
"My colleagues and seniors at school are also concerned. Even though we only buy branded toys from known companies, we are not too sure. We may ban at least soft toys and those made of plastic at our school," she said.
Her concern is understandable since Mattel Toys had to recall a host of popular merchandise from India for posing health hazard, like Barbie accessories, Batman figures, Cookie Monster, Soccer Elmo, Ernie and Oscar the Groush.
Globally, Mattel had to make its third major recall announcement in little more than a month because of excessive amount of lead paint in Chinese-made toys and had said some 8,000 pieces would be affected by the announcement.
According to a senior commerce ministry official, the government will soon take a call on a similar ban on Indian toys in consultation with the consumer affairs ministry and the Bureau of Indian Standards.
"Since China is also a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), all imports from China are entitled to national treatment. We cannot appear to be imposing a non-tariff barrier," the official said, requesting anonymity.
According to Raj Kumar, president of the Toy Association of India, the ban on Chinese toys, although welcome, came as a surprise. "Chinese toys had captured more than 60 percent of the Indian toy market," he said.
"We are taking all necessary precautions to provide safe toys to children. Our own children also use these toys. We are very sensitive to this cause. But I cannot say about the unorganised sector."