A whiff of warning at the pool

More building blocks, more toy cars, more dolls: the German toy sector is constantly growing. Simultaneously, hundreds of toys are withdrawn from the market every year, as can be seen from the European Rapid Alert System (RAPEX). In some cases, consumers complain about the smell – and so draw the attention of manufacturers and regulatory authorities to the respective products. However, these smelly substances, and how they affect people – and especially children – have barely been explored to date. Scientists from the Friedrich Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV have now identified some of the culprits in their initial studies. They have now published their findings in the renowned scientific journal "Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry" (DOI : 10.1007/s00216-017-0330-x).

For these studies, which were sponsored by the Bavarian Ministry of the Environment and Consumer Protection, FAU researcher Christoph Wiedmer, together with Prof. Andrea Buettner, selected 50 suspicious children's products and analysed their odour. "There are always toys that emit a smell that is described by parents as 'pungent' or even 'somehow seems poisonous'", explains Wiedmer. "No wonder consumers perceive such products as worrisome and have concerns about letting their children play with them." Samples that smell particularly intensely, or product groups in which a large number of smelly samples were found, were also investigated via various odour analysis methods to identify the compounds responsible for the disturbing effect.

Among other things, the researchers dealt with the question of which substances are responsible for the widespread intense smell of inflatable armbands, water balls, and similar products. In fact, solvent residues such as cyclohexanone or isophorone were detected in many of the products under investigation, and the analyses revealed that these compounds exhibited smells that were very similar to that of the corresponding products, indicating a correlation. In addition, various other odoriferous substances were found, for example, those associated with products of precursor substances that can form during the production or storage. Some of the detected odours may be of physiological concern: isophorone, for example, is classified as a potential carcinogen, while phenol, a substance also found in the water toys, is suspected of being mutagenic.

According to the German Product Safety Act, as well as the German Food and Feed Code, it is forbidden to place harmful toys on the market, and conspicuous products are often flagged by regulatory authorities and even removed from circulation. Nevertheless, only little is known about some of the substances detected during these investigations. Current findings from the FAU team of scientists, led by Prof. Andrea Buettner, provide the basis for follow-up studies on the physiological and toxicological evaluation of such substances. In particular, the team will further examine how these substances affect the people exposed to them over longer periods, such as consumers, but also those involved in the manufacturing processes, as well as those in the retailing industry. In addition, studies are currently taking place on other articles of daily use.

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