High nickel release from metal construction kits can trigger allergies

Metal construction kits for children and youngsters can release considerable amounts of the allergenic metal nickel. The Federal Office for Risk Assessment (BfR) has assessed nickel release from toys from a health point of view. The data were collected as part of the country-wide federal control plan (BÜP). 29 out of 32 inspected metal construction kits exceeded the legal limit value for nickel release from toys. Nickel causes allergies more frequently than any other metal. "The legal limit values for nickel release must be complied", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "Manufacturers have a duty to ensure that this is the case!" When assembling the toy, children have long and intensive contact with the metal. If children develop an allergy to nickel, this can result in life-long restrictions since contact with nickel-releasing materials can instantly trigger severe and pathological skin changes. The BfR recommends more controls in the toy segment.

As part of the country-wide federal control plan (BÜP) 2012, the question was investigated how much nickel is released from metal toys after prolonged and direct skin contact, as is the case when children play with such toys. Coated and varnished metal toys were also included. 11 federal states were involved in this investigation programme. On the basis of 168 random sampled toys the nickel release was determined: out of these 76 were model toys, 32 metal and model construction kits, 47 action and role play toys and 13 other types of toys. Overall, 41 of the 168 toys exceeded the legal limit value for nickel release of 0.5 micrograms (µg) per cm2 of toy and week. This amounts to 24 % of all samples tested. 127 of the investigated toys met the requirements.

Metal and model construction kits were especially conspicuous. Only three samples met the legal requirements, whereas 29 of the 32 (87 %) tested samples exceeded the limit values, in some cases significantly, meaning that up to 400 micrograms (µg) of nickel per cm2 metal construction kit were released. When children play with metal construction kits, they come into skin contact with the toys for extended periods of time and / or repeatedly. For this reason, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is especially strict in its evaluation of these findings. The release data collected as part of the BÜP 2012 indicated that toys can make a significant contribution to nickel exposure via the skin and that in sensitised children they might trigger contact allergies.

So far only few data on nickel release from toys have been available. The current measurement of toys underscore the picture which already began to emerge as part of the BÜP 2010: metal toys can release significant amounts of nickel during skin contact. The results show that official controls by the federal states should in future pay more attention to metal toys.

Nickel is the contact allergen with the highest sensitisation rate. About 10 % of all children are sensitised to nickel. People who are sensitised to nickel can develop pathological skin changes upon contact with the allergen. Contact with nickel is very difficult to avoid in everyday life, since the substance is contained in food, jewellery, piercings, leather goods, dyes and household products as well as dental prosthesis and other implants. This means that a nickel allergy can severely limit a person’s quality of life and medical therapy options.

The limit value for the nickel release is defined in the REACH regulation and should also be applicated to toys. This is underlined in the guideline on the European Toy Safety Directive 48/2009/EC. In appendix XVII of the REACH regulation and the Consumer Goods Ordinance a limit value of 0.5 µg/cm2 / week is laid down for nickel release from products intended for direct and prolonged skin contact. Nickel release was determined using the method DIN EN 1811.

As part of the BÜP, unwanted ingredients in foods, cosmetic products and commodities are systematically studied. This approach serves the purpose of determining the aspects that permanent official surveillance should focus on in its control procedures. The foundation is provided by a plan drawn up by the federal government and the federal states which lays down the selection of samples to be tested and the distribution of controls across the individual states. Programme proposals are submitted by the Federal Laender, the Federal Ministry of Food Agriculture and consumer Protection (BMELV), the Ministry of Environment, Nature Protection and Reactor Safety (BMU), the BfR and the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL). The BVL coordinates the programmes and publishes the results.

About the BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

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