There was a spot on the radio today about the toy hamster scare, saying these little robotic balls of fur and electronics have too much antimony, but now there’s been a retraction.  Nevertheless, this story is a cautionary tale, indicating an important need for delving into testing methods in use, as discussed below.

The story begins with a toy hamster, the Zhu Zhu, shown here:


The Zhu Zhu Pet Hamster

There are several of them, each with a different personality (?), and they  squeak and more around.  Apparently, one of them, Mr. Squiggles, was the one accused of having too much antimony.

The Financial Times has a good review of what happened:

Good Guide, a web-based company that evaluates the environmental and social impact of consumer products, had on Saturday highlighted its claims to have found “higher-than-allowed” levels of antimony, a heavy metal, during tests of Mr Squiggles, one of three varieties of the sought-after toys.

But on Monday Good Guide said it had used a testing methodology different from that now required by federal and EU regulators.

The problem stemmed from the type of testing done by Good Guide. The method XRF, or X-Ray Fluorescence, is not quantitative–that is, it does not measure the quantity of something. XRF only shows presence of absence of elements on surfaces. XRF is a good screening test, however, and can indicate where actual quantitative testing is necessary.

The more comprehensive method required by federal standards involves dissolving some part(s) of Mr. Squiggles and then analyzing the concentration in the diluent.  With that measurement, one can back out the total masses of the various constituents present.

I do want to know more about the standard method of sample preparation here, however.  Presumably, the test involves taking samples from different parts of Mr. Squiggles, because he is comprised of different colors.

Did they test his little pink nose, for example, or was some part of his nose analyzed in a composite sample consisting of clippings from different parts of his body, combined for analysis?  Because kids might put the noses in their mouths, it seems important to know if the paint/dye on a nose was analyzed, apart from other body parts. Such multiple testing is an expensive proposition, though, so a composite might be all that is required.  I’ll have a look and report back.

Regardless the final analysis, it’s best to discourage kids from putting any hamster parts in their mouths, and that goes for all toys, really.