Neither you nor your child can escape the touch of plastics, and for the most part, you don't need to worry about it. Most plastics are perfectly safe for even very small children. Plastics in their pure form typically have low solubility in water and have a low level of toxicity. However, some plastics found in toys contain a variety of additives that have been found to be toxic. Although the relative risk of injury from plastic-based toxins is low, it's prudent to select your child's toys carefully.
Bisphenol-A -- usually called BPA -- was long used in toys, baby bottles, dental sealants, and even thermal receipt tape. More than 100 studies have linked BPA to problems including obesity, depression and breast cancer.
Avoid plastics that are marked with a "3" or "PVC" because polyvinyl chloride plastics often contain additives that can make plastics more harmful than they need to be for children. The volume and type of those additives will vary by the object and may differ significantly from toy to toy. The manufacture of PVC creates dioxin, a serious carcinogen. Although the dioxin shouldn't be in the plastic, it's a byproduct of the manufacturing process, so buying less PVC may be an environmentally smart decision.
Polystyrene is a rigid, brittle, inexpensive plastic commonly used to make plastic model kits and other toys. The material is also a base of EPS foam. In the late 1950s, high-impact polystyrene was introduced, which was not brittle; it is commonly used today to make toy figurines and similar novelties.
Plasticizers such as adipates and phthalates had long been added to brittle plastics such as polyvinyl chloride to make them pliable enough for toys. Traces of these compounds can possibly leak out of the product. The European Union placed a permanent ban on the use of phthalates in toys. Furthermore, in 2009 the United States banned certain types of phthalates commonly used in plastics.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, plastic toys may contain lead, which is added to the plastic to soften it. If the toy is exposed to high heat, the lead may leach out in the form of dust, which may then be inhaled or ingested by a child or pet.
A Little Bit of Vigilance
Almost all plastic children's toys are safe. A vast majority of toys are now made with polybutylene terephthalate plastic: You can tell these toys apart by sight, as they are the brightly colored, shiny, very impact-resistant objects littering toy boxes across the country.
Regardless of the type of plastic you encounter, it's always wise to discard or recycle any plastic object that shows obvious signs of wear or degradation.
So although there's no need to panic about toxic toys, a little bit of vigilance -- especially with antique toys, or very inexpensive mass-produced toys -- may protect your children from unnecessary exposure.