#AskTamara: Should I be worried about the possibility of lead in the sandbox toys at my child’s school?


Question: Should I be worried about the possibility of lead in the sandbox toys (or on the playground) at my child’s school?

Answer: Um, yeah. And here’s why…

The plastic toy dinosaur pictured here was just one of MANY leaded toys found on a playground at a daycare for young children near Santa Monica, California early in 2018.

Should I be worried about the possibility of lead in the sandbox toys at my child's school?

A mom at the school had asked me to come look around for potential hazards and my eyes went right to the dozens (if not a hundred or more) of “old” toys that were deemed crappy enough (yet sturdy enough) to be left outside day after day and therefore suitable for use on the playground. This included a whole flock of older plastic dinosaurs of all sizes.

As expected, many of the plastic dinosaurs positive for lead when tested with an XRF instrument.

Even in high-end, fancy private schools many of the toys and other learning aids are donated by well-intentioned families who no longer use these items in their home. As a result, these toys are often older (pre-dating the new consumer protection laws ushered in with the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008), well-worn, and also possibly highly leaded.

The dinosaur pictured here did, in fact, test VERY HIGH for lead (over 8,000 ppm), and was also positive for cadmium, which is a known carcinogen. Please scroll down below the picture to see the exact full XRF readings for the dino pictured.

The amount of lead that is considered toxic in a newly manufactured item intended for use by children is anything that is positive for 90 ppm lead or higher in the paint or coating or anything that is 100 ppm lead or higher in the substrate.

Should I be worried about the possibility of lead in the sandbox toys at my child's school?The bottom of the dinosaur’s foot (flat surface) – 100 second reading:

  • Lead (Pb): 8,373 +/- 143 ppm
  • Cadmium (Cd): 44 +/-8 ppm
  • Barium (Ba): 3,387 +/- 84 ppm
  • Chromium (Cr): 1,234 +/- 188 ppm
  • Antimony (Sb): 60 +/- 17 ppm
  • Bromine (Br): 59 +/- 8 ppm
  • Tin (Sn): 101 +/- 16 ppm
  • Zinc (Zn): 451 +/- 32 ppm
  • Copper (Cu): 130 +/- 33 ppm
  • Iron (Fe): 5,334 +/- 172 ppm
  • Titanium (Ti): 12,100 +/ 1,800 ppm

The dinosaur’s side (curved part) – 30 second reading:

  • Lead (Pb): 7,930 +/- 261 ppm
  • Cadmium (Cd): 47 +/- 15 ppm
  • Barium (Ba): 3,153 +/- 152 ppm
  • Chromium (Cr): 571 +/- 324 ppm
  • Bromine (Br): 82 +/- 15 ppm
  • Tin (Sn): 105 +/- 29 ppm
  • Zinc (Zn): 434 +/- 61 ppm
  • Copper (Cu): 233 +/- 67 ppm
  • Iron (Fe): 7,831 +/- 398 ppm
  • Titanium (Ti): 32,000 +/ 3,700 ppm

To learn more about XRF testing, click here.

Simple Solutions:

  1. My simple solution for schools – and parents – is don’t allow donated toys unless they have a manufacture date stamped or permanently impressed into the bottom; ideally, this date needs to be 2010 or newer. If there is no date (and especially if there is also no manufacturer indicated), the school should not accept the toy.
  2. Alternately, absent a volunteer to ensure compliance with item #1, the school should only buy newly manufactured toys from reputable manufacturers AND vendors (be on the lookout for and avoid vendors who sell cheap knock-offs — which can often initially appear identical – down to fake labels — the suspiciously low price being the red flag!).
  3. One of my favorite brands for sturdy outside toys that encourage interactive play (and hold up to the elements fairly well) has ALWAYS been Green Toys! (affiliate link)
  4. Another safe idea for young children, for outside play areas that are not a lead concern, is play tables that can be switched from water-play to sand-play to bean-play (these are so great for kiddos with sensory issues, too!)

Another example (of why schools should not accept donated toys)
Thomas The Tank Engine Trains:

This image shows all of the recalled Thomas the Tank Engine trains from the June 2007 recall.

Back in 2009, in my own kiddos’ daycare — which was a very fancy private Jewish daycare (over in Portland’s fancy west side hills, – back in the days before I involuntarily took a vow of poverty, lol!) I found recalled [high-lead] Thomas The Tank Engine trains in the train tables in the baby and toddler rooms.

This is not an uncommon occurrence; after a recall makes a big splash in the news (the Thomas trains were recalled in June of 2007), the specific concern gradually fades from the both the headlines and people’s consciousness (and the original recall almost NEVER reaches all of the customers who bought the recalled products — especially folks like grandparents, who might not be staying on top of every single recall the way some new moms tend to these days!) As a result those recalled toys often end up being donated to daycares and schools when the family outgrows them, and the donor doesn’t realize they are giving a toxic item to the school.

To see more toys I have tested, click here.

Made In China:

Given the focus and concern on plastic dinosaurs in this post (and the fact that most plastic dinosaurs are made in China and the Thomas trains were made in China too!) I wanted to make sure to state that contrary to a popular impression, the “Made in China” label is not necessarily a predictor of anything bad these days (post 2010).

The concern in each of these cases is not the country of origin, but the year made.

Please don’t reflexively reject toys for lead concerns simply because they are manufactured in China. China is home to the largest manufacturing sector in the world, and thanks to current regulatory standards with a big focus on screening imported goods, in my experience most modern toys from China are lead-free or lead-safe; conversely, many toys that are high-lead are not manufactured in China today.

To see more “Made In China” items I have tested, click here.

Thank you for reading and for sharing this post!

As always, please let me know if you have any questions.

Tamara Rubin

Please consider chipping in something in support of my independent consumer goods testing and advocacy work. Any amount helps. Contributions help me do this testing and also help to keep this information free and available to the public here on my blog (so I don’t have to put all of my content behind a paywall!) Thank you! Chip In Link.

Should I be worried about the possibility of lead in the sandbox toys at my child's school?

2 Responses to #AskTamara: Should I be worried about the possibility of lead in the sandbox toys at my child’s school?

  1. Rachel September 10, 2018 at 11:15 am #

    We have these:

    https://amzn.to/2x5WqLw (aflink)

    I’m assuming they are safe. They were a gift (bought off Amazon I believe) and they seem to look good! I do always wonder about people trying to find cheaper alternative for the same item on Amazon though.

    • Tamara September 10, 2018 at 12:57 pm #

      Since they are a new children’s product specifically targeted to be used by young children I would also assume these are safe. While I am not familiar with this brand, anything after 2010 that is newly made and marketed to be played with by young children *should* be okay. The issue comes with items that have a warning (like “not for children under 14” or similar) and therefore consider their warning label to be a viable loophole (like the fidget spinners last year.)

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