Yellow rubber duck in soapy waterQ: My sister-in-law, who doesn’t have any kids yet, helped me with my son’s bath the other night, and she remarked that she had heard that bath toys were bad for my kids and for the environment. I immediately got defensive, but I wondered after she left if she was right. Is there anything potentially harmful in my son’s bath toys, and is there such a thing as an eco-friendly option?

A: Oy, don’t get me started on the hazards in toys these days.

First, the concerns were just over BPA. Now, mounting evidence is showing that any plastic toy made with PVC can be potentially harmful, even carcinogenic. Phthalates are chemicals added to the PVC to make it soft and pliable, and unfortunately are not stable within the plastic, meaning they are free to leach out. What’s wrong with phthalates? They are known hormone disrupters, have been linked to cancer, and are called water and air pollutants by the EPA.

Thankfully, there are a handful of bath toy manufacturers that have made it a priority to make PVC-free bath toys, and the great news is that they don’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

First, check out Boon. Boon’s bath toys are BPA-, phthalate- and PVC-free, and their Odd Ducks are just adorable. My favorite is their Floating Ring Toss, which never fails to entertain both of my children in the tub.

Sassy also started to green its bath toys and many of them are also BPA-, phthalate- and PVC-free. A great one to start with? Sassy’s Count 'n Spell Bath Appliqués, which, like all of Sassy’s toys, are bright, colorful and educational.

So how do you know if your current bath toys make the grade? The Soft Landing, a website and blog that promotes nontoxic items for baby and beyond, has a comprehensive list of bath toys that don’t contain harmful chemicals. You can also try calling your toy’s manufacturer, though the answers you get might depend on how knowledgeable of a customer service rep you get on the line.

No matter what bath toys you choose, it’s important to keep in mind a couple of general tips:

Stay away from the ones with those little holes on the bottom. That’s because once water gets trapped inside a toy like that, it’s near impossible to get out. And that means you’ve just turned your innocent little rubber ducky into a breeding ground for harmful bacteria and mold. I once squeezed out some of those “hole”-y bath toys and was appalled to see black crud instead of water. The “Today” show recently did a report on the hidden filth in bath toys and actually found … wait for it … fecal matter in and on them. That’s because all of the grime and bacteria being washed off your little one finds a convenient resting place on the toys before it goes down the drain.

That’s why it’s also important to leave your bath toys out to dry and give them their own bath once a week or so with soap and water.

If you store them in a mesh bag in the tub, try to keep the shower curtain or door closed when you’re not using it. This will prevent fecal bacteria from the toilet getting onto the toys. According to the “Today” report, fecal matter can spread up to 20 feet when you flush the toilet. Egads!

Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way to bringing the clean back to bath time. After all, isn’t that what bath time is all about?

— Chanie

Also on MNN:

Got a question? Submit a question to Mother Nature and one of our many experts will track down the answer. Plus: Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.

Photo: Jupiterimages; MNN homepage photo: iStockphoto