The goal of UMass Lowell's commitment to action is to reduce the amount of toxins in toys and other children's products.
- Create a program in which Plastics Engineering and School of Health and Environment students and faculty engage in research and information-sharing about toxic chemicals in children's products and safer alternatives.
- Bring students, consumers, advocates, lawmakers and toy industry members together for information sharing, awareness-raising and advocacy.
- Funds from this effort would support one graduate research assistant in each of the two departments, Plastics Engineering and School of Health and Environment.
- Initiate a program for Plastics Engineering students to work for credit with faculty and researchers to inventory and assess what plastics and coatings are being currently used in toys, and outline existing alternatives as well as barriers where currently no alternatives exist.
- Initiate a new program whereby engineering and health faculty and students collaborate to share information and perspectives about the problems of toxins in toys from several perspectives: engineering, science, health, and health policy and advocacy.
- Create brochures aimed at consumers, child-care givers, policy makers, and members of the toy industry on the growing body of knowledge about toxic hazards in plastic toys and potential solutions.
- Organize and host a forum to bring what the students, researchers, and policy staff on campus have learned to the entire campus as well as to all relevant constituencies.
- Develop steps to continue to solve this problem, since it surely will not be solved in one year.
The campus partners will include faculty and students in the Plastics Engineering Department and faculty and students in the School of Health and Environment, as well as staff members of the campus's Toxics Use Reduction Institute and Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. While these groups have overlapping interests, they have not all worked together before on the goal of reducing toxins in children's products. Off campus partners will include the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety.
There is scientific evidence that a range of hazardous chemicals are present in children's blood and the developing fetus; at the same time there are higher incidences worldwide of childhood asthma, cancers, and learning and behavioral disorders. While factory emissions and waste are one important source of such toxins, exposure may also occur from products that babies and children use every day, such as toys and other products. Coatings (e.g. paints) often used on plastic toys are also plastics that can contain various additives and can flake off and be ingested. Other hazardous chemicals, such as dioxins, may be formed during incineration of plastic made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). For this reason, the entire lifecycle of the plastic product must be evaluated for health and environmental impacts. Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals because of their small and rapidly developing bodies and their continuous hand-mouth behavior. Scientific research is demonstrating that low dose exposures to some types of chemicals during critical windows of vulnerability can lead to important, life-long effects.
Improvement is necessary in two areas: 1) understanding the nature and extent of the problem and identifying safer alternatives to the hazards that exist. In today's global marketplace, children's products come from many different countries, and consumers do not know the materials and chemicals used. 2) strengthening laws and policies that regulate these products in both first and third-world countries as well as market incentives to sell and purchase safer products. Even the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, effective this year, addresses only a handful of toxic chemicals and does nothing to address the problem in developing countries.
Research needs to focus 'upstream' on the design phase of products. The most effective way to protect children from toxic chemicals in toys and other children's products is to 'design out' these hazards.
UMass Lowell has a long history of addressing both streams of the problem. Our Plastics Engineering Department is an internationally recognized leader in plastics engineering education and research with state-of-the-art research equipment. In the past several years, the Department has assumed national and international leadership in research and education in 'green plastics.' Our School of Health and Environment combines outstanding teaching and research, a public university's commitment to community service, proven success in interdisciplinary problem-solving, and a 21st Century vision of health and sustainability, based on primary prevention.
Established by the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act of 1989, the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) provides research, training, technical support, laboratory services, and grant programs to reduce the use of toxic chemicals while enhancing the economic competitiveness of local businesses. The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production is an internationally recognized resource in developing and piloting the concepts of sustainable production and consumption.
Previous work at UMass Lowell in the area of safer alternatives for children's products includes:
- The Sustainable Children's Products Initiative, which brings toy manufacturers, retailers, children's environmental health advocates, designers and government policy makers together to discuss opportunities to design and develop safer and healthier products for children;
- Collaborating on the creation of voluntary toy standards to help toy manufacturers make safer products and provide a way for consumers to identify safer products;
- Advocacy on the state and national level, to promote policy reforms that advance knowledge about chemical hazards and identify safer alternatives to chemicals of concern;
- Work with companies in a range of sectors on tools and incentives for safer product design;
- Work with member states of the European Union in their establishment of far-reaching reforms to chemicals regulation;
- Work with the WHO's Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety to advance substitution of dangerous chemicals in products, particularly children's products;
- Establishing close connections with advocates, our government and other countries to ensure that dangerous toys do not end up in developing countries once the standards in developed countries are strengthened.
July 1 - Sept. 1, 2009: TURI and LSCP staff work with Plastics Engineering and School of Health and Environment faculty and researchers to outline the program in the upcoming two semesters for their students, who will work both in their own departments and with each other.
Sept. 1, 2009 - May 1, 2010: Plastics Engineering students will work for credit as part of their regular coursework to inventory and assess materials used currently in toys and other children's products. In addition, students will research alternative materials for technical and economic feasibility, including emerging innovative materials and solutions and may do lab testing of more well developed alternatives for specific applications. Their results will be written up, outlining what they have learned and recommending next steps.
Sept. 1, 2009 - May 1, 2010: School of Health and Environment students and faculty will work for credit as part of their regular coursework to research the environmental, health and safety impacts of the materials identified by the Plastic Engineering students and identify materials of greatest concern. Based on this research the Plastics Engineering and Health and Environment faculty and students will agree on several materials of concern and applications to focus the second phase of research. Students and faculty in both Departments will work with the Toxics Use Reduction Institute staff to identify safer alternatives to these materials of concern. Health and Environment students will evaluate the environmental, health, and safety impacts of the alternatives identified. Students and faculty will produce papers outlining their findings, the content of which will be used for materials to be printed by the University and distributed to wide range of constituencies. The result of this research in both Departments will be a roadmap for further research and identification of some potential safer alternatives for specific applications.
Feb. 1 - May 1, 2010: TURI and LCSP staff will, with the help of students, organize a forum to be held on campus in May for the campus community, lawmakers, members of the toy industry, consumers, and advocates to share information about toxins in toy products and safer alternatives, and to raise awareness of the many aspects of the issues.
May 1 - June 30, 2010: Hold the forum on campus, recommend next steps, and garner as much publicity as possible for the event.
Performance Metrics:- Number of UMass Lowell students to become actively engaged in addressing the problems of toxins in toys and other children's products: 50.- Number of UMass Lowell faculty and staff to become actively involved in the project: 10.- Number of people, representing various constituencies, to attend the forum and benefit from the outcomes of the project: 100.
Number of people to receive information about the outcomes of the project by print or electronic communication: 500.
Approach to monitoring:
This project will be managed by Joel Tickner, director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, who will keep track of the progress of the project, including the performance metrics and will have a report for the Chancellor of UMass Lowell and CGI-U at the conclusion.