Very young children should not be playing with electronics for two overall reasons – the presence of toxic substances, and their inadequate regulation in consumer products.
Many electronics like cell phones, computers, televisions, etc., are meant to withstand heat from either being plugged in or using batteries. As a result, flame retardant chemicals are incorporated into the often-plastic housings of electronics. A variety of chemicals have been used as flame retardants. Among them the PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) have been progressively phased out and banned because they are highly toxic. The critical toxic effect, among several, in these regulatory decisions has been developmental neurotoxicity, that is, toxic effects on the developing brain.
Other chemicals of concern in electronics include heavy metals. These metals are generally inside these items and not likely available to children. However, toxic levels of metals will be available if play results in electronics being broken open. Also, any attached electrical cords can contain high levels of lead (3 to 5% or 30,000 to 50,000 parts per million). Again, the lead is used to provide flame resistance properties. Handling of any electrical cords will result in lead on the hands, particularly if hands are sticky. Mouthing cords will also result in lead exposure and such cords are one of the sources of lead in indoor dust.
While PBDEs continue to be phased out, they remain common in electronics, particularly older items. Experts agree that these chemicals are not tightly bound to plastics, foam, and in the many other products in which they have been used. Through normal wear and tear these chemicals are released to the indoor environment and end up mainly in the dust. We also know that indoor dust is the primary exposure pathway for children for PBDEs, lead, and is a source of other toxic substances as well. Alongside dust, handling, and especially mouthing, of electronics will add to a child’s exposure risk. Alternatives to PBDEs are being used to lend flame retardant properties in diverse products. But, where these alternatives are new chemicals, unfortunately the regulatory approach does not require that inherently safer alternatives be used. As a result, concerns about newer chemicals continue to be raised. Regardless, PBDEs will be in older products and are thus very likely to be in the products being used in the manner you describe.
Moreover, lead in electrical cords is routine and this fact alone should be a reason to ensure that children are not able to play with such items if there is a chance they are also playing with or mouthing electrical cords.
There have been recent and long overdue improvements in product safety law in Canada. These changes were prompted by many problems. The most well-known were the hundreds of product recalls affecting literally millions of toys that contained lead and other hazardous substances. The law has been changed to give the federal government new powers such as the power to recall unsafe products.
Regulation-making has continued in the area of children’s products and toys. Notably, this activity is focused specifically on applying various safeguards for products “intended for children.” For example, there have been regulations on the level of lead in various products including children’s jewellery, toys for children under three, and a regulatory proposal (early 2012) to extend this age range. As well, recent regulations have banned phthalates in toys for children.
The important point to recognize here is that such safeguards are in place for chemical exposures in products “intended for children.” For electronics, no such consideration is given and the normal use of such products is not anticipated to include mouthing or other play by children.
It is better to be safe than sorry. We know that many different toxic substances are found in indoor dust and that electronics are among the many products responsible for this situation. While children love to play with items that are important to their parents, it would be far better in this situation to create toy versions of such items out of safe materials intended for use and play by children.