That familiar smell from inflatable pool toys may signal toxic chemicals, study finds

FREISING, Germany — Many swimmers probably recognize that pungent plastic smell emitted by common pool toys like beach balls.  According to two German researchers, that odor may be a tip-off to the presence of polyvinylchloride, or PVC, as well as acutely toxic chemicals like isophorone that could pose a serious cancer risk to children.

The researchers, Christoph Wiedmer and Andrea Buettner, of the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging, released a study early this month based on a battery of tests they performed on swimming rings, armbands and other common pool items purchased online or from nearby stores.

Inflatable pool toys
A new study finds that the common odor emitted from inflatable pool toys may actually signal the presence of toxic chemicals harmful to children.

In addition to analyzing the material used to produce the items, the two researchers also tested the chemical content of the distinctive odors they emit.  Those tests involved an unusual research protocol: specially trained volunteers were asked to sniff the various pool items up close and to describe what their smell reminded them of.

Some participants said the odors reminded them of almonds or rubber; however, others compared them to glue and nail polish, suggesting the presence of toxins.

Wiedmer and Buettner identified roughly three dozen separate odors in each of the pool items sampled, of which 13 were described as “intense.”  More in-depth analysis of these intense odors using solvent extraction and high vacuum distillation methods turned up the presence of cyclohexanone, isophorone, and phenol, each of which is sickness-producing depending on the concentration level and degree of exposure.

For example, isophorone, a category 2 carcinogen, has been linked to the development of birth defects in animals and cancer in humans.

The new German study is not the first to raise concerns about the chemical toxicity of children’s toys. Numerous past studies conducted by non-profit advocacy groups have raised similar issues.  For example, a 2009 study found that nearly one-third (32%) of all children’s toys contained hazardous chemicals, including cadmium and arsenic, at levels considered dangerous.  Another study found that 42% of kids’ toys contained PVC.

In recent years, these groups, with support from eco-lobbies like Greenpeace,  have become increasingly vocal, demanding action from the U.S. Congress and the European Union, but so far, with mixed results.

Industry trade groups, including the Vinyl Institute, have pushed back against these studies, arguing that they exaggerate the danger arising from the relatively low chemical levels detected in their products.

However, Wiedmer and Buettner believe their findings are more than enough reason for public health officials, producers and consumers to push for a review of current manufacturing processes for common pool items, especially those used by kids, given the possible health risk.

“Modern products such as toys and children’s products are sourced from a wide variety of chemical and physical manufacturing processes, and this complexity often makes it difficult for us to identify those containing contaminants and unwanted substances, and to determine their causes,” Wiedmer notes in a press release. “However, we found that in a number of cases our noses can guide us to ‘sniff out’ problematic products.”

The team’s findings appeared in the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry published by Springer.