It is my belief that no toy or play gym company wants to put out toys that are dangerous to pet birds. Some of the companies go to great pains to make sure that their toys or play gyms are as safe as possible for birds. Unfortunately, for the most part, parrot toy and play gym making is mostly a cottage industry. Many of the people who make parrot toys are simply not aware of the problem with zinc toxicity. And even if they are aware of the problem, they may not want to use stainless steel parts because they can be difficult to find and they can add significantly to the cost of the toys. Stainless steel is also harder to cut and work with than less expensive metals.
If you are ordering toys from a mail order or Internet company or from a local pet store you should certainly ask if the toys contain any zinc-coated parts. My experience has been that most dealers assume their toys are safe but unless the toys are specifically noted as being made only with stainless steel parts, they have no way of knowing for sure what the toys are actually made of. If you buy toys from a bird fair, you sometimes are buying directly from a local company who makes the toys and you can ask them about how their toys are made. However, in many cases the folks who make the toys simply do not know. If you are buying toys or play gyms directly from the manufacturer, you should directly ask the question about how the toys are constructed. However, as I recently learned even the best-intentioned toy or play gym manufacturer may be unaware that their toys are not completely safe. I recently purchased a beautifully designed wooden play gym from a very reputable manufacturer. Before ordering I specifically asked about the metal parts. I was told that the metal parts were all stainless steel. However, when I received the gym I did the magnet test and quickly discovered that none of the parts were stainless steel. When I called the company to ask about this I learned that the company thought that had been purchasing stainless steel parts for their play gyms. When I explained that the parts were not stainless steel, the play gym company immediately contacted the vendor who supplies their metal parts, including screw eyes, chain, and quick links. The play gym company called me back to indicate that although the parts were not in fact stainless steel, they were nickel plated steel and were completely safe. I then checked all of the metal parts using the method I will describe later in this article. It turned out that the chain and quick links that they were using were in fact nickel-plated steel and were safe. However, the screw eyes used for holding toys were zinc-plated and thus not safe for birds. I then called the company back with my findings. I was very pleased with their response. They apologized for the problem and indicated that they would immediately send me out replacement stainless steel screw eyes for the two play gyms I had purchased from them (which they did). Also, they decided to stop shipping play gyms until they could replace the screw eyes with stainless steel ones. This is the kind of company I like dealing with.
So what can you conclude from this? If a major toy manufacturer indicates that all of their metal parts are safe, there is a reasonably good chance that they are, but you are not guaranteed that this is the case unless all parts are stainless steel (non-magnetic). At the end of this article I will give some guidelines for visually inspecting metal parts that can help you identify at least some unsafe parts.
According to the American Zinc Association, zinc is almost never a component of steel, but rather a coating to prevent rust. Even if steel is partially made from recycled metals that are zinc coating, the re-melting process burns off the zinc. As an impurity, zinc causes steel to become brittle so it is not a component of the steel itself.
The good news is that since zinc is a coating it is relatively easy to test for zinc chemically. The bad news is that the chemical used to test for zinc is hydrochloric acid, which is dangerous stuff to work with. While hydrochloric acid is generally not available to the general public, there is a somewhat diluted form of hydrochloric acid called muriatic acid which is easy to obtain and a little less dangerous to work with.
WARNING: Any handling of muriatic acid for testing for zinc should be done outside in a well-ventilated area. You should be wearing rubber gloves and lab type eye goggles with sides. You should also wear long pants and a long sleeve shirt to minimize the chance of getting any acid on your skin. Also, you should have water readily available so you can quickly wash off any acid that accidentally splashes on your skin or clothing.
If in spite of these warnings you want to test for zinc, here are recommended steps to follow:
1. Muriatic acid can be purchased at most paint stores or hardware stores that have a paint department. Typically the smallest quantity you can purchase will be in a quart bottle. It is not very expensive.
2. You can test for zinc using a single drop of acid, so it is safer to transfer a small amount of the muriatic acid to a small container. I recommend that you obtain a new empty glass medicine bottle with a dropper built in. I was easily able to purchase one for 50 cents at my local pharmacy.
3. Working outside wearing protective gear, transfer a small amount of muriatic acid to the medicine bottle, being careful to not breathe in the fumes. Since the top opening of the medicine bottle is small, you should use a small plastic funnel to pour the acid into the medicine bottle. Do not use a metal funnel unless it is stainless steel – the acid will probably dissolve it. Alternatively, you can pour a small amount of the acid into a glass measuring cup with a pouring spout and then carefully pour it into the medicine bottle. After the transfer is complete, you should close the bottle and wash the outside thoroughly with water (as well as the funnel or measuring cup) to remove any remaining acid. This is actually the most dangerous part of the testing. Once the acid is transferred to the medicine bottle you will only be using a drop or two at a time.
4. To actually test things for zinc, you will need two things: 1) a bucket filled with cold water which you will use to dunk toys and other metal parts to quickly wash off the test acid, and 2) a glass plate or baking dish which is where you will place the item you are testing. (See below for suggestions on how to test cages.)
5. When muriatic acid is put onto a metal part with zinc coating, you will see an immediate and vigorous foaming reaction. The area where the acid touches the zinc will sometimes turn almost black, although this does not always happen. In order to get an idea of what type of reaction you are looking for, I suggest you obtain a galvanized roofing nail from your hardware store, building supply store, or your friendly neighborhood handyperson. Working outside and wearing protective gear put the nail on the glass plate and put a single drop of acid on the nail. You will get a vigorous chemical reaction. Then try the same thing with something you know is stainless steel, such as a piece of tableware. You will get absolutely no reaction when the item is stainless steel. This will also be the case if the item is nickel plated rather than zinc plated.
6. Use the same procedure to test toys. Note that a toy may have several metal components, for example, chain, quick links, a metal loop fastening chain to a plastic object, a metal wire used to string together wood or plastic parts, etc. As soon as you have tested the metal parts of the toy, immediately dunk the toy in the bucket of water to dilute the acid. You should thoroughly rinse the toy later before using it with your bird.
7. Play gyms usually have metal screw eyes or other metal parts for hanging toys. Remove one of each type of metal part from the play gym and test it for zinc. This includes any nuts or bolts that hold things together. One of my plastic play gyms has metal toy hangers made out of stainless steel, which is great. However, the toy hanger is fastened to the play gym using a regular nut and a wing nut, both of which turned out to be zinc coated!
8. Testing chrome plated cages can be a bit tricky. Since it is not safe to test for zinc indoors, you need to move the cage outside to test it. I have noticed that most cages that are chrome plated are small portable cages, so moving it outside is not a problem. If you have a large parrot cage, you will need to move it outside, which may be a bit of a challenge, especially if the cage won’t fit through the door! In any case, once the cage is outside, remove any perches or toys that might be damaged by water. Have a garden hose handy to rinse the cage after testing. All you need to do is put one drop of acid on the cage bars and see if you get the zinc reaction described above. As soon as you do the test, thoroughly hose down the cage to make sure that all of the acid has been rinsed away.
One alternative to testing for zinc yourself that you may want to consider is to see if there is a local commercial analytical lab in your area that can do the testing for you. Another alternative is to check with the toxicology lab at a nearby University. They may charge a small fee for the testing, but at least you won’t need to handle dangerous chemicals yourself.
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