Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Face to Face with Toy Safety: Understanding an Unexpected Threat

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Face to Face with Toy Safety: Understanding an Unexpected Threat

Article excerpt

Until March 2007, thousands of kids around the country could be found playing with toy trucks, helicopters, and soldiers sold under the Elite Operations brand name. The toys were fun, and they looked great with their thick coat of glossy paint. Trouble was, that paint was loaded with 5,000 ppm lead, a potent developmental neurotoxicant with no known safe exposure level.

When the high lead levels were detected during a routine inspection, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSE) issued a recall, the first for a lead-contaminated toy in 2007. Lead-triggered toy recalls were rare, but not unheard of in the United States, with just a handful issued in the last decade. Eventually, nearly 130,000 Elite Operations units--made by a Hong Kong company called Toy Century Industrial and imported by Toys R Us--would be recalled.

In a typical year, the recall would have barely ruffled the $22 billion U.S. toy industry, which sells 3 billion units annually. But 2007 was far from typical as far as import recalls were concerned. Contaminated pet food, cough syrup, toothpaste, and other products--mostly made in China--were being yanked off store shelves under the full glare of the media. Given that most of its wares are made in China, the toy industry ramped up its inspections for lead, and found that high levels were a lot more common than they had assumed. By year's end, 42 recalls involving nearly 6 million toys had been issued because of excessive lead levels.

Lead-contaminated toys became one of the biggest environmental health stories of recent times. It was shocking to think of children being poisoned while playing, and by lead no less, a toxic metal that consumers assumed had been purged from products long ago. Now lead was back, sparking a furor over toy safety.

Looking for Answers

"The 'toxic toy' issue really exposed holes in safety testing procedures," says Sally Edwards, a researcher with the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. "The CPSC has responsibility for over fifteen thousand products, but it's underfunded, understaffed, and dependent on voluntary testing by industry. What's more, the toy industry is highly competitive; consumers expect low prices, and that forces manufacturers to look for low-cost materials. When you externalize the cost of production, you're going to pay the price somewhere."

Years ago, most toys sold in the United States were produced domestically. Now, 87% are produced abroad, according to Santa's Sweatshop: "Made in D.C." with Bad Trade Policy, a December 2007 report issued by the nonprofit Public Citizen, and of those, 74% are manufactured in China, where it would seem lead paint is used plentifully. A study led by Scott Clark, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati, found that 50% of the paint sold in China, India, and Malaysia had lead concentrations 30 times higher than the CPSC standard. That finding was published in Environmental Research in September 2006.

With manufacturing shifting overseas, U.S. toy importers have come to rely increasingly on test results from foreign suppliers. But overseas testing has been problematic for companies to monitor, and growing evidence suggests it's more sporadic than one might assume. In congressional testimony given on 19 September 2007, Mattel's chairman and chief executive officer, Robert A. Eckert, conceded that "a few [overseas] vendors, either deliberately or out of carelessness, circumvented our long-established [testing] standards and procedures." As a result, Mattel wound up with 3 lead paint--triggered toy recalls in 2007.

Jeff Gearhart, campaign director for the Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, emphasizes that Chinese toys are not the only culprits. The center's investigations have shown lead-containing toys originate from numerous countries in addition to China, including Canada, Mexico, Thailand, and the United States. …

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