Solving the 3D puzzle game Rubik’s Cube might not be so smart after all

News 2017 / March

Posted on

Solving the 3D puzzle game Rubik’s Cube might not be so smart after all

Do you remember the colorful puzzle game Rubik’s Cube, found in nearly every kids room since back in the seventies? Of course you do, you probably had one yourself and perhaps your kids today have one, too. According to Wikipedia it’s widely considered to be the world’s best selling toy. Not everybody managed to solve the puzzle, which demanded a certain mathematical understanding – but the kids who did could always bask in the success, surrounded by awestruck friends.

Well, turns out it’s probably not as smart as you thought to play with the cube, except if you bought yours in Sweden. The NGO Arnika from Czech Republic tested the ingredients of Rubik’s cubes and found the two flame retardants OctaBDE and DecaBDE in almost every sample they bought on a worldwide scale.


Range of concentration (ppm) of PBDEs in Rubik’s cubes per country (from 2015 report)

Purchased in Number of samples OctaBDE DecaBDE
Bangladesh 2 27 – 41 33 – 96
Belarus 2 3 – 5 134 – 153
China 1 13 36
Czech Republic 6 0 – 75 2 – 96
Germany 2 1 3 – 4
Hungary 2 0 – 6 0 – 58
India 1 48 67
Indonesia 5 0 – 52 0 – 63
Nepal 3 17 – 58 19 – 234
Philippines 4 2 – 108 5 – 293
Poland 4 0 – 51 0 – 79
Serbia 3 13 – 57 36 – 47
Slovakia 1 26 98
Sri Lanka 2 46 – 48 44 – 131
Sweden 1 0 0
Thailand 2 25 – 48 21 – 23

OctaBDE is banned globally and listed on the Stockholm Convention as a POP – persistent organic pollutant. DecaBDE is restricted in electronics under the RoHS legislation and is nominated as a POP under the Stockholm convention, awaiting the final decision in a few weeks. Furthermore, both substances are placed on ChemSec’s SIN List since many years back, belonging to the chemical group of PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers).

The research around these substances is pretty substantial. WHO says: “The neurotoxic effects of PBDEs are similar to those observed for PCBs and so children exposed to PBDEs are likely to be prone to subtle but measureable developmental problems.”

The NGO Environmental Working Group, EWG, is less cryptic: “A growing body of research in laboratory animals has linked PBDE exposure to an array of adverse health effects including thyroid hormone disruption, permanent learning and memory impairment, behavioral changes, hearing deficits, delayed puberty onset, decreased sperm count, fetal malformations and, possibly, cancer.”

So the question is: Why do they turn up in children’s toys? Shouldn’t toys be the safest products – especially when children are extra vulnerable since their bodies and brains are still developing?

The fact is that there is an exemption in the regulation for recycling – and here we can immediately see which problems we create in a future circular economy if we do not phase out the use of hazardous chemicals. In this scenario we are exposed over and over when contaminated materials are being reused.

In Rubik’s cubes there are black parts mainly made out of recycled plastics. It’s black because producers want to hide the ugly color of recycled plastic. The substances OctaBDE and DecaBDE have probably been used in plastic parts of electronics such as office equipment before reborn as toys parts.

So what do you do as a concerned customer? Stop buying black plastic toys – this is probably the best hands-on solution as of now. In addition, I don’t think it’s too much to ask our authorities and legislators to protect both us and our children from some of the worst chemicals on Earth.

Read more: Arnika’s report (this links to a 2015 report, which will be updated soon)


Sonja Haider

Sonja Haider
ChemSec Business and Investors Advisor