Go Go Hamsters - everything you've been told is a lie
The most popular children's toy of Christmas 2009 - the Go Go Hamster - can kill your child. It's official, according to the press. The hamsters contain a mysterious element called antimony which can poison, cause lung cancer and murder a small child to death. The bandwagon is already rolling and has so much momentum it's impossible to stop. The Mirror declares:
While at The Daily Mail:
And according to The Sun:
"Antimony can be fatal in high doses and make kids sick even in low amounts if inhaled or ingested..."
The result? Danger, panic, upset and a complete lack of professional behaviour from people claiming to be journalists, because not one appears to have researched the topic they're cutting and pasting from the other - we're not just talking the red tops, but the broadsheets and the likes of the BBC, too. The result is the perpetuation of a news story that is misinforming the whole of the UK public.
The drama revolves around a study produced by a US website called GoodGuide, which pulls products apart and tests them to see what chemicals they contain. What's upsetting GoodGuide, at least according to the media, is that Go Go Hamsters contain dangerously high levels of antimony. According to The Telegraph, Dara O’Rourke, from GoodGuide has found antimony at levels of 93 and 106 parts per million, above the "60 parts per million allowed under US regulations". The BBC quotes Professor O'Rourke from GoodGuide, who said antimony "has potential health hazards related to it which, if ingested in high enough levels can lead to cancer, reproductive health and other human health hazards". He's a professor, so this must be true and should go unquestioned by a single journalist.
Cue a brilliant story for the media - the most popular toy under the tree this year is also the most deadly. Except there are some facts about antimony you need to know about before swallowing this complete and utter bullshit.
For starters, antimony is everywhere. It's used to produce batteries, cable sheathing, matches and solder, and flame-retardant material - in children's clothing, toys, aircraft and seat covers. It's a common element in the production of electronics, and it's used to flameproof glass and pottery. We even drink antimony - it's used to produce the plastic bottles we drink water from - the slight acidity of water causes antimony to leach into the water, but at levels well within safety limits.
According to the Encyclopedia Britainica, there have been reports of antimony poisoning caused by drinking fruit juices that have dissolved the cheap glaze of an enamel container, and in cases of repeated exposure to particular medicines when used to induce vomiting. However "the industrial use of antimony has not appeared to be associated with serious occupational poisoning". In fact there seems to be only one significant case of the public suffering antimony poisoning; seventy people became acutely ill after drinking lemonade containing high levels of antimony - the lemonade had been prepared and left overnight in buckets coated with an enamel containing an antimony-based compound. Fifty-six people were taken to the hospital with burning stomach pains, colic, nausea and vomiting but most recovered within three hours. Nobody died. 15 years ago, antimony was linked to cot death by The Cook Report, but researchers disputed the claims and the findings were dismissed.
In other words, despite the widespread use of antimony in dozens of everyday applications, hardly anybody is ever poisoned by it, and consumers have only ever been poisoned when the antimony has been drawn out of a compound by acid, and then drank. There is simply no evidence of a consumer suffering major illness by handling or even licking an item that contains the chemical. It'd be interesting to see The Sun back up their claim that antimony makes kids sick - we can't find any records of a child suffering harm through this type of exposure.
Yes, Go Go Hamsters are potentially harmful to your children, but only if they eat a whole one and only if they contain the sort of antimony that their stomach acids can leach out, but then there's more chance of them choking to death in the attempt. According to the same US health body that set the safety limits for antimony, the only real risk of adverse health would occur if you fed significant amounts to your child every day for several weeks - not only does your child have to eat one Go Go Hamster, but several of them. The scare stories in the paper about antimony causing lung cancer? That has only been observed to occur in cases where significant quantities of antimony dust were inhaled - there is no such dust to be found in a Go Go Hamster. Why is it even mentioned by the press?
One final concerning with the reporting of this story - in order to create their horror headlines, the media have confused the initial report from GoodGuide - deliberately or accidentally. The US standards concerning "60 parts per million" is specific to a liquid solution, not a solid object. GoodGuide found antimony in the fabric of the toy, a form of antimony that has little-to-zero chance of being hazardous to health. So in fact this type and amount of antimony is not a significant hazard to health at all - GoodGuide themselves seemed to have been embarrassed by the press reaction and published a disclaimer on their blog, pointing out their tests cannot and should not be compared to safety standards because the two are incomparable:
"While GoodGuide considers the presence of any antimony on the surface of a toy to be a concern, we want to clarify that we used a testing methodology to evaluate the toys that is different from the testing methodology incorporated into the federal standards."
Nobody is interested in publishing the facts or even GoodGuide's updated statement because a made-up version with information presented out of context will sell more papers and attract more website hits - another example of churnalism at its finest and a public threat that doesn't and has never existed.