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“I discovered that my kids’ favourite toy was toxic, and I totally freaked out.”

Being a parent in 2019 means constantly worrying that the world is toxic. Usually, I can keep the scaremongering at bay with a good dose of common sense.

But what happens when a respected government agency finds that your kid’s favourite toy contains high concentrations of harmful chemicals? Well, you freak out and decide that everyone needs to hear about it – and that’s what happened the day that I bought my kids some “squishies”.

“Squishies” have been the big toy trend of the past eighteen months. You’ve probably seen them at the shops – they are like bigger, cuter and softer stress balls. A squishy often resembles something “kawaii” (the Japanese word for “cute”), such as an ice cream, unicorn or rainbow poo, usually with an adorable little face on it.

When you squeeze a squishy, it feels like you’re grabbing a giant marshmallow that slowly re-inflates. The squishy took off as a trend thanks to videos on social media of people playing with these adorable, tactile toys.

When my kids told me they wanted squishies, I happily went with them to the shops to buy some. Each squishy was very cheap (around $3 to $5) and easy to find at our local shopping centre. We had dinner with the kids’ grandparents that night, and we squished our squishies as we waited for the food.

I realised that something was up, though, when I felt that maybe we should scrub our hands more than usual before we ate, because we’d been playing with the squishies.

I’m not a germaphobic mum. It’s just that I noticed that the skin on my own hands felt a bit different after playing with the squishy, as though some residue was left on them – like when you run your hands through your hair after it’s had hairspray and other products in it.

There was also the smell. On each squishy packet, there was a warning that each squishy had been intentionally fragranced with a bad smell, so as to deter pets and humans from eating them. It was true – the squishies stank. Like old nail polish and hair dye. The sort of smell that stings your nose and makes your eyes water.

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At the time, it did make sense that something should be done so that people don’t mistakenly eat their squishies, as they do resemble actual food. But I also remembered that some squishies are scented like food, such as strawberries and bubblegum.

So why were some squishies fragranced with good smells, and others with bad ones? It didn’t make sense. To me, it seemed as though the scent was covering something up – or that the scent was a problem in itself.

That night, my kids wanted to cuddle their squishies in bed, and again, I had an inkling that I didn’t want them to, but I wasn’t sure why. It was just an instinct. That bad smell couldn’t be good for them to inhale all night, and I wouldn’t want the foam to sit on their face and suffocate them. (Okay, yes, I’m probably a helicoptery, panicky mum.) So I put their squishies on the other side of their rooms as they slept.

 

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Once my kids were asleep, it was that time of the night when I google random things. Last night, I HAD to know if Penn Badgley from You and Gossip Girl had kids. The night before that, I googled “subversive cross stitch”, because I love those cross stitch samplers that say rude things like “Go Sit On A Cactus”. And the night I bought my kids squishies, you guessed it, I googled squishies.

One of the first hits was every parents’ nightmare: the word “toxic” following the name of the toy. It was there, beaming from my laptop in black and white pixels: “Squishies toxic”. Argh!

But, unlike most sources that cry “toxic”, such as unqualified wellness influencers, this information was from a reputable source: the Danish Government.

That’s right, Denmark: the home of everything good. Need examples? Prince Frederick and “our” Princess Mary. The gorgeous and hilarious body-positive comedian Sofie Hagen. Delicious, flaky danish pastries. The country of all goodness and deliciousness had found that squishies were toxic.

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In mid-2018, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a press release, warning parents of the toxicity of squishies. This press release was based on information from a Danish EPA investigation, in which 12 different squishies (purchased from various sources) were tested. The title of the press release was “Popular toy full of dangerous chemicals”.

“The Danish EPA has tested twelve soft foam toys, the so-called squishies, and all twelve emitted high levels of harmful substances. They will now be withdrawn from the market,” the press release stated.

“Selling toys that may be harmful to children is completely unacceptable. The toy industry is responsible for ensuring that the products they sell are legal and do not contain harmful chemicals.

“In this case, we’re talking about serious violations, where children breathe in substances that may cause mucous membrane irritation and which may, in the long term, be harmful for fertility and cause liver damage, said Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, Minister for Environment and Food…the Danish EPA’s examination of the popular toy began in March because squishies often smell scented and of chemicals.”

This was my brain’s response:

1. You were right! Your mummy instincts were correct. Hurrah.
2. Argh! We touched and squeezed these ALL NIGHT. We’re gonna die.
3. The kids will be devastated when I tell them they can’t play with their squishies any more.
4. Good luck sleeping tonight, Carla!

According to the Danish EPA investigation, the chemicals found in the squishies were dimethylformamide, xylenes, methylene chloride, styrene and toluene, which are damaging to fertility, carcinogenic (having the potential to cause cancer), hepatic (affecting the liver), a mucosal irritant (irritating the mucous membrane or eyes) or generally an irritant.

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After I freaked out, I put the squishies outside. The next morning, my kids were very sad they couldn’t play with their new toys.

“Why do they sell these toys if they know they’re bad for kids?” my daughter asked me. This was a hard question to answer. It sucked to tell my kids that there are lots of companies out there who only care about profits, and not the health of the planet or its inhabitants.

I want my kids to see the good in things, but in this case, there was no silver lining, except for a yucky life lesson that we can’t trust everyone and everything.

The squishies live outside now, in an area were our resident possum doesn’t nibble things. Occasionally my kids visit the squishies to say hello. I ended up buying extra presents to make up for the quarantined squishies.

I know it’s just a toy. The Danish Government assured people that “the likelihood of children getting permanent damage is very low,” because the potency of the chemicals fades after the children have opened the packaging. “In addition, the body has the ability to repair injuries when the impact stops,” said the report. I am reassured by this.

I do feel betrayed by the companies that make squishies, and by the shops that sell them. When the toys we buy for our children aren’t safe, then what is?

Do you think squishies are worth worrying about? Tell us in the comments section below.

Carla Gee is a writer and illustrator who lives in Canberra. As a kid, she was obsessed with getting a Popple and Pocket Locker for Christmas. You can find her on Instagram as @bycarlagee and @littlecloudcarla.

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