Toxic substances linked to some headphones and teething toys in the US

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published April 17, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers in Toronto found dangerous short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs) in common objects and children’s toys

  • Staying on top of new studies on SCCPs and human health can help doctors and pediatricians familiarize themselves with potential risks and prepare for conversations with parents and patients.

Researchers in Toronto have identified dangerous short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs) in many common household items and children’s toys—including babies’ teething objects. SCCPs are toxic, and Canada has legally prohibited their use since 2013. A decade later, the new study suggests that legal actions have yet to translate into reality.[] 

“These are the first data to show the ubiquitous occurrences of SCCPs in a wide range of currently marketed products, suggesting continuing indoor exposure to SCCPs despite their prohibition,” the researchers write in their study.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has banned the production of SCCPs since 2012. Since 2014, and as part of the Toxic Substance Control Acts (TCSA) Significant New Use Rule (SNUR), the EPA has also required manufacturers and importers of SCCPs to notify the agency at least 90 days before starting or resuming the use of the chemicals, during which time the EPA can evaluate the use and decide whether or not to prohibit or limit production on a case by case basis.[]

What are SCCPs?

SCCPs are toxic substances that are found in a variety of products. But there’s a dearth of research on just how much they affect human health.

“There aren't any conclusive studies on humans, but there have been some studies showing neurodevelopmental toxicity in rats, and also carcinogenic properties,” says Steven Kutarna, PhD, who led the study. “They have a high potential of bioaccumulation in organisms, and these chemicals are chemically and structurally similar to a lot of other chemicals that are known to be toxic.”

As such, any effect SCCPs do have on humans is likely negative, Kutarna says. SCCPs contain high amounts of chemicals like chlorine, which puts them in the broad class of “persistent, organic pollutants,” he adds. 

Previous studies have shown a connection between SCCP and cancer in rats, and other researchers suggest even low levels of human exposure to SCCPs can lead to damage to organs, including the liver, kidney, and thyroid. Further, Hui Peng, the study’s principal investigator and an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto," told The Toronto Star that SCCPs can easily be released from products to people via touch through the fingers or mouth.[]

Where did SCCPs come from?

According to the Stockholm Convention, which deemed SCCPs toxic in 2017, SCCPs were historically used in metalworking fluids, serving as lubricants and coolants. Throughout the years, they have also been used in plastics, flame retardants, paints, adhesives, sealants, leathers, rubber and other textile and polymeric materials.[][] 

However, SCCPs may not be integral to product function. According to the Stockholm Convention, “the transition away from using SCCPs, and chlorinated paraffins in general, in metalworking applications has included the development of alternatives as well as alternative processes.”

Some alternatives for SCCPs in textiles include acrylic polymers and phosphorus-based compounds, according to the Stockholm Convention.

Which products contain SCCPs?

The study did not reveal specific brand names in which the SCCPs were found. However, Kutarna says they were found in a broad range of items—from personal care products to teething toys.

“To our surprise, we found [SCCPs] in most of them,” he adds. “For example, one of the toys I tested was a rubber hand that a child might gnaw on, that kind of thing.”

Headphones, not brand specific, were flagged as containing among the higher levels of SCCPs of the objects tested, he adds. This could be due to the combination of hard and soft plastic in the earbud, he says. 

Going forward, the team plans to conduct further studies to zone in on if specific brands are the culprit and, if so, which ones, he adds.

“This was meant to be an exploratory: ‘Let's just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks,’” Kutarna says. “Then we'll hone in on the specific categories that have a lot of these because we found them all over the place.”

Can consumers knowingly avoid SCCPs?

Unfortunately, most brands don’t list whether or not their product contains SCCPs on product packaging (in Canada, if they did, they probably couldn't sell the product, anyway), and it’s impossible to tell from the look or feel if an item does or doesn’t contain these chemicals.

“They're quite challenging to analyze,” says Kutarna. “We were able to develop a method that worked for our instrument—of a more expensive variant than most government labs might have access to—but there have been some improvements.”

One way to reduce exposure would be to limit the use of plastic products—as SCCPs are common, although may not be exclusively, found in plastics—this is no easy task. 

More research is needed to confirm what products and brands contain SCCPs and to understand the full extent of human health risks posed by SCCPs. For now, researchers urge caution in the handling of plastic products, particularly babies’ teething toys.

“Ingestion by toddlers is the big one,” Kutarna says. “They're putting their mouth on these things, biting them—that’s the major concern.”

What this means for you

New research reveals that many common products and baby toys contain harmful short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs). In the interim, before new studies come out, parents and pediatricians may want to be extra careful about the objects young children put into their mouths and limit the use of teething products for children who no longer need them.

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