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Beware of Lead and Toxic Dog Toys
Be proactive in monitoring what goes in your dog’s mouth
Dog in grass with tennis balls

Questions about the safety of pet toys continue to haunt Nancy Rogers. They’re questions the Illinois dog owner has tried to get answered since 2007, when she hired a laboratory to test the lead content in 24 of her Shelties’ chew toys. The tests revealed that one of her dogs’ tennis balls contained 335.7 parts per million (ppm) of lead, an amount that, at the time, fell far below the levels allowed in children’s toys. Today, however, that amount exceeds the 300 ppm federal standard for lead in children’s toys.

What amount of lead should be allowed in the toys dogs lick, chew, slobber on and even shred? Do toys with relatively high levels pose any harm to our best friends? These questions are at the heart of Rogers’ frustration. When she had her tests run three years ago, she learned there were no standards for lead or other toxins in pet toys. There still aren’t any today.

“We can test and measure all we want, but until we have standards, it’s hard to evaluate what those levels mean,” says Rogers, a nurse from Orland Park, Ill. “I want there to be a standard that says whether an amount is safe or not safe.”

Many in the pet industry agree there should be guidelines for lead and other worrisome chemicals in dog toys. They share Rogers’ safety concerns, which surfaced in the wake of the recall of melamine-tainted pet food and amid growing concerns about lead in children’s toys from China.

“All that made me think about what’s in my dogs’ toys,” recalls Rogers, who now has three Shelties. “It also didn’t seem right that I had lost two eightyear- old dogs and we didn’t know why. I was doing this [testing] personally for the safety of my dogs and only tested for lead because that’s what they were finding in the toys from China.”

But others in the pet industry downplay the need for chemical standards in these products, saying they aren’t aware of any studies linking lead in dog toys to canine-related health problems. They also say many companies that make pet toys now follow the federal standards for lead in children’s toys— or the European standards, which limit lead levels to 90 ppm.

“It may sound like standards make sense and they may make consumers more comfortable about buying a pet toy, but there are no indications that there is a real risk to pets [from lead and other toxins] in their toys,” says Ed Rod, vice president of government affairs for the American Pet Products Association (APPA). “We have 1,000 members and we’ve heard no reports of dogs or cats having any ill effects from playing with any pet toy because of the lead or the plastic in the toy.”

But recent tests of hundreds of pet toys, tennis balls, beds, collars and leashes reveal that many contain what researchers call “alarming levels” of lead and other harmful chemicals. The tests were run in September 2009 by the Michigan-based Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental organization that analyzes toxins in children’s toys and other consumer goods; results are posted on the Ecology Center’s research-based website, HealthyStuff.org. While the site explains that the project’s screening technology “cannot identify the presence and concentration of every chemical of concern” (Bisphenol A, for example), some key findings are worth noting:
• From the more than 400 pet products tested, 45 percent had detectable levels of one or more hazardous toxins, including arsenic, chlorine and bromine. Studies have linked those chemicals to reproductive problems, developmental and learning disabilities, liver toxicity and cancer.

• Of the tennis balls tested, 48 percent contained detectable levels of lead. Researchers discovered that tennis balls made specifically for pets were more likely to contain lead than “sports” tennis balls. The lettering on one “pet” tennis ball, for example, contained 2,696 ppm of lead and 262 ppm of arsenic, a known human carcinogen. None of the “sports” tennis balls tested contained any lead.

• While one-quarter of all the products had detectable levels of lead, 7 percent of all pet products had lead levels higher than the 300 ppm allowed in children’s toys. Nearly half of the pet collars tested had detectable levels of lead; 27 percent had lead levels that exceeded 300 ppm.

“Pets are involuntary canaries in the coal mine in terms of chemical exposure,” says Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center. “Pets, like children, have higher exposure to chemical hazards, and our data show that pet products are far more likely to have hazardous chemicals than children’s toys.”

Not all the dog toys tested, however, contained harmful chemicals. Researchers discovered more than a dozen “chemical-free” toys—including the Air Kong Squeaker, the Hartz Flexa-Foam Round About Elephant and the Nylabone Double Action Chew. Despite these “green” findings, Gearhart says his organization’s tests illustrate why chemical safety standards are needed for chew toys and other pet products. The standards would not only protect pets, he says, but also young children who might put dog toys in their mouths. “For lead, the standard that applies for children’s toys is appropriate for pets,” Gearhart says. “I’d say the standard for children’s products should at least be a starting point for those levels.”

A veterinary toxicologist with the ASPCA supports similar guidelines. “Dogs are part of the family,” says Dr. Safdar Kahn, director of Toxicology Research at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. “They are as important as our kids or other family member. And if we feel that way about them, then we should give them things that won’t affect their health.

“So yes, there should be standards for [chemicals] in pet toys,” Kahn adds. “Just like there are guidelines for children’s toys, there should be guidelines for [toxins] in the toys being sold for pets.” Dr. Kahn isn’t aware of any confirmed cases of lead poisoning in dogs caused by a pet toy, but he warns that long-term, excessive exposure to the heavy metal could cause health problems in our four-legged friends.

“Dogs like to chew on things, lick things, carry toys in their mouths, and if there are excessive amounts of lead in a toy, then they can get overexposed to lead,” he says. “And lead can do a number of things to dogs, depending on how much they’re exposed to and for how long.” Some health problems associated with canine lead toxicity include vomiting, weight loss, anemia, seizures and permanent neurological damage.

“Depending on how much exposure there is, and the duration, it can affect multiple organ systems,” Kahn says, adding that dogs who chew or ingest such products as fishing sinkers, curtain weights and old paint can develop lead toxicity.

Remember the “pet” tennis ball that contained more than 2,000 ppm of lead and more than 200 ppm of arsenic? “They are considered higher than the maximum tolerable dietary levels in dogs,” says Kahn.

But the levels of other toxins found in the pet toys tested by the Ecology Center—including traces of chromium, antimony and up to 166 ppm of the flame-retardant bromine—do not alarm Kahn. “Those are not expected to be a concern at these levels,” he says.

Years before concerns of harmful chemicals in pet toys became a hot topic, the Maine company Planet Dog started making nontoxic toys and other products for dogs. Since it opened its doors 12 years ago, Planet Dog has embraced strict hazardous material standards. Many are self-imposed, including the company’s decision to follow the lower European standards for lead in children’s toys of 90 ppm.

“We want to make sure everything we are producing is completely safe,” says Jeff Cloutier, Planet Dog’s manager of sourcing, quality assistance and product development. “All our molded toys are 100 percent safe. We also do our own third-party testing to ensure all the products we make and sell meet our standards.” Cloutier would still like to see national standards for lead and other chemicals in chew toys and pet products. There’s just one caveat: Those standards must be fair.

“The problem is there are so many different standards and tests out there for kids’ toys and clothes, but there is nothing for pets,” Cloutier says. “There needs to be something. This is a huge industry, and who knows what some companies are making.”

PetSmart says dog owners don’t need to worry about the safety of the pet toys and other products on its store shelves. The nationwide retailer claims all its products meet strict federal and other regulatory guidelines. “We use the same standards established for human safety,” says spokeswoman Jennifer Ericsson, “and we continue to receive successful test results on our products, and believe there is no cause for concern related to the products we sell.”

The company routinely tests samples of its imported pet products, Ericsson says. “We also hire an independent company to conduct a variety of quality- assurance tests on representative batches of [pet] toys, including tests for arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium,” she says. “We take the safety of our products very seriously.”

The American Pet Products Association (APPA) says its members are just as vigilant about the safety of dog toys and other pet products. The trade group says many of its members have adopted their own chemical standards, using the European lead levels or the 300 ppm in the United States as baselines. “There is a kind of informal standard going on now,” says the association’s Ed Rod. “Some of our members have also found that large retailers impose their own standards. But some members have run into difficulties because those standards are not always the same. Retailers set their own standards. One company may have one standard and another retailer may have another one.”

Do APPA members agree that national standards for toxins in pet toys should be adopted? “There is discussion in the industry about whether some sort of voluntary standards are appropriate,” Rod says. “We’ve met with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) about getting some standards. But the CPSC has no jurisdiction over pet toys, and they are underfunded and overworked. They have no interest or inclination unique to pet toys. They’re looking at children’s toys. So going to the CPSC and getting some standards for pet toys is not an option.”

Rod says members of his organization understand dog owners’ concerns and frustrations about toxins in their pets’ toys. “People saw Mattel recall toys for lead and heard about the lead problems with the Thomas the Tank Engine toys,” he says. “The next connection was, understandably, ‘What’s in my pet’s toy?’”

But there isn’t a consensus among APPA members that chemical safety standards are needed, Rod says. “I’m sure there are two points of view. It’s convenient to say that there are standards for children’s toys and if those are good enough for kids, they should be good enough for dogs.

“On the other hand, it’s hard to establish a baseline. And there is no science showing any ill effects from the lead or plastic content in a chew toy for animals. Therefore, we have no basis for evaluating any lead or plastic content standards unique to pet toys.”

At least one worried dog owner says she’d consider APPA members “heroes” if they’d spearhead a campaign to establish standards for toxins in pet toys. “We need standards and we need to know what levels are okay to expose our pets to,” Nancy Rogers says. “I still think the Pet Products Association should lead that effort. This issue matters because pets are part of our families.”

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 59: Apr/May 2010
Lisa McCormick is an award-winning investigative reporter whose stories have appeared in Dogs for Kids magazine, The Kansas City Star, and the national consumer news website, ConsumerAffairs.com; she has written 12 nonfiction children's books.
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