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Toy Safety Matters, But Who's Making It a Priority?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission's acting chairman Nancy Nord "would like to see all Chinese toys tested before heading into the U.S." She expressed that sentiment at a CPSC press conference this morning recalling more than 9.5 million toys made by Mattel. (An additional 2.4 million of Mattel's Polly Pocket Play Sets were recalled in November of 2006.)

But the reality of the Consumer Product Safety Commission appears to be one of reliance on toy companies to test their products for safety violations and then report those results to the national safety agency. In today's recall of Polly Pocket play sets, Doggie Day Care play sets, Barbie and Tanner play sets, Batman and One Piece magnetic action figure sets, and "Sarge" die cast toy cars, the agency learned about the dangers -- some lead, some loose magnets depending on the product -- because Mattel decided to test all of its products after a recall of Fisher-Price toys character toys earlier this month.

Nord pointed to today's massive recall as only a fraction of the toys sold this year. She emphasized that between 70 and 80 percent of all toys sold in the United States are made in China. Of the agency's 409 recalls this year, 44 were for toy products. An additional 23 children's products were recalled because they contain lead.

Clearly, the CPSC wants to keep harmful products off the market. It has its own testers working to do that. It is working with the Chinese government and Chinese manufacturers to improve product safety. But shouldn't the agency be making sure that companies are testing more of their products? Why does it fall to parents to pull the toys away from kids after they are bought and paid for, played with and loved?

And what happens after a parent does send in recalled products? Several On Parenting readers have been e-mailing me about their correspondences with RC2, the company that makes the recalled Thomas trains. Many have received a letter acknowledging the receipt of the trains and a free train while they wait for replacements and checks to cover the postage of mailing the toys back.

Are you paying more attention to recalls these days than in years past? Are you reading toy labels more, trying to find that 20 percent of toy products not made in China? How should the CPSC manage toy safety?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  August 14, 2007; 11:54 AM ET  | Category:  Recalls
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I have been paying more attention to recalls in general. Either that, or it seems that they have been communicated better recently.

Related to this, I heard a bit of a what seemed to be a good analysis of the situation in a recent NPR talk show (this could have been Diane Reihm, I'm not sure). The gist of what the speaker was saying is that the prevelance of lead as a toxin has been a continuous problem in poverty stricken areas for years. This is not just limited to toys, but also in older housing with lead paint, pipes, and other structural materials. What it boils down to is that the middle class only seems to care when the issue of lead comes to effect them. It was certainly news to me.

So, to the point, the CPSC hasn't been protecting the poor against lead for ages.

The full podcast of the program can be found here:

Posted by: David S | August 14, 2007 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps big business should stop outsourcing to other countries to save a dime rather than endangering ourselves, our children and pets from unregulated sweat shops? How long before US Executives start to hang themselves because people stop buying anything at all from their companies because they choose to deal with this stuff?

Banging the pots and pans on the floor ain't such a bad prospect afterall.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2007 12:36 PM | Report abuse

My child has a few of the Dora la Exploradora products recalled. First, how will I take her favorite toy from her? Second, my one year old has been putting dora in her mouth, do I need to test my child for lead? Third, the recall does not adequately compensate for the cost of the toy. For example, the Dora car is costs $25 in the store (not counting taxes), but they give you $20. It seems that we consumers and our children are being hurt.

I believe that US needs to get real tough with China. Either they play the game right, or tough luck, the businesses can go to other countries that will build the products according to our standards.

Are we China's pawns? Sure looks like it.

Posted by: vidusa | August 14, 2007 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I have 2 small children and we had some of the Thomas toys that were recalled. I'm furious. My 14 month old still puts everything into his mouth. I've tried really hard (and spent lots of money) to keep my kids safe from the lead paint in and around our old house. Now I have to worry about toys too. Luckily neither of my kids has elevated lead levels, so far. The CPSC needs to have its funding increased by a factor of at least 20, and have its powers strengthened. This issue will influence how I vote next election.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2007 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Personally, I feel rather helpless. It is hard to find more than the 10-12 toys that all the major stores carry, let alone any not manufactured in China. I have zero faith in the products coming out of China, in our ability to monitor and regulate their quality, and in the major toy manufacturers to move quickly and get this problem under control. I would pay $40 for a toy with a good manufacturing pedigree instead of $25 for one that might harm my daughter.

Posted by: JA | August 14, 2007 1:01 PM | Report abuse

We just celebrated both our 1yo's and 3yo's birthday this weekend. I had a list of recalled toys at the ready as the wrapping paper went flying. Fortunately, no recalled toys were received. As I was cleaning up the aftermath Sunday night, I told my husband we should keep all the toy boxes just in case since EVERY TOY was made in China. Thankfully, my kids are still young for the toys listed in this recall, but I am just waiting for the next notice to come out. For the time being, I will give my put-everything-in-his-mouth son paper towel rolls to play with and hope they don't get recalled.

Posted by: AugustMom | August 14, 2007 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I am glad that companies are feeling the political/societal pressure to test products and hope that necessary regulations are put in place. However, I am very concerned that they are only paying attention to what has recently been on the shelf. Whose to say that all of the other toys from the last year or so haven't had these problems? And how can we test to be sure? Paint on my daughter's Dora figures has been chipping off for some time. Luckily we have a strict rule on not putting plastic toys and painted wooden stuff in their mouths...

Posted by: gdc | August 14, 2007 1:05 PM | Report abuse

You know, it's strange. We had this debate over a couple months ago on this blog and I tried to point out that we shouldn't trust things coming from a totalitarian regime that is not responsive to its own people, let alone the rest of the world.

Obviously, yes, all countries may have problems with products from time to time, but countries like the U.S. and other democracies have to deal with the feedback from the people -- through elections, etc. Totalitarian regimes like China do not. Therefore, there's no incentive to care about the safety of products, particularly those products that they ship to countries that they do not like, such as the U.S.

If China doesn't care about the suffering of Darfur, why should they give a d*** about lead paint on children's toys in the U.S.?

The fact is that, despite the few products that do get caught, most of their products are NEVER tested. Imagine if we started examining all products (food, toys, etc.). Think about all the problems we'd find.

Look, I don't think the U.S. should be some sort of dumping ground for dangerous food and toys from China.

Posted by: Ryan | August 14, 2007 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Vidusa, yes, get your child a blood test for lead. The half life in blood is something like 30 days, but if your child has very high levels they can give drugs that lower it quickly. The half life of lead in the brain and tissues isn't well established from what I have found the damage can be irreversible. Kids who were treated with drugs after poisonings showed no better out comes in the long run than kids that were not, thus prevention is critical. Mattel has pictures of the toys in the recall on their website which is a big help. I would also recommend the NPR Diane Rehm that was mentioned earlier

Posted by: jjsaluki | August 14, 2007 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Wow, maybe our kids that like playing with the boxes instead of the toys themselves had it right all along....

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2007 1:27 PM | Report abuse

It appears jjsaluki caught more of the show than I did. I only just reached the bit talking about the effects of lead poisoning and the studies about the micrograms that it can take to have an effect.

As something that could be of interest to JA and others, why not look into craftsmen/women for locally handmade toys? It might not be Dora, but a there seems to be an advantage in this case to keeping away from branded image. Craft fairs and rennaisance fairs could be the ticket.

I would also caution against laying this exclusively on the feet of the Chinese. The US based company that did not want to spend the money to ensure the safety of its supply chain is clearly also to blame.

Which brings up an interesting point: What happens to these toys after they are recalled? Are they dumped in a landfill where the lead seeps into the ground water? Are they repackaged and sold in other countries with more lax consumer protection standards?

If Mattel was responsible it would dispose of them as Hazardous Chemical Waste, but that is expensive. Hopefully information will be forthcomming.

Posted by: David S | August 14, 2007 2:12 PM | Report abuse

We had to return a Polly Pocket set in the last recall, and I have to give Mattel credit for handling it well. You fill out a form on their website and they send you a pre-paid shipping label and detailed pictures so you know exactly what to send back. Shortly after we sent it back we got a certificate for Mattel or Fisher Price toys.

Unfortunately, the playset we got in exchange is now part of this new recall. Ugh! The biggest pain is sifting through all the little pieces looking for the proper parts to send back. I think I'm going to tell my daughter NO magnetic toys!

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2007 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, we just found out that we have to send back the "Sarge" car back to Mattel. Luckily, we hadn't opened yet as we had bought it back in July and were saving it for one of those "rainy day" treats. So as soon as our 2-year old went to sleep, my wife opened it up to see that the last three characters matched the one that is being recalled.

We'll get a voucher for $7 which is nice since we bought it at Kay-Bee Toys during a buy one get one free special they had going.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2007 2:57 PM | Report abuse

David S.: just hosted a live chat with Julie Vallese of the CPSC. I sent in your question about what happens to the products. Here's the response:

Washington, D.C. Area: What happens to these toys after they are recalled? Are they dumped in a landfill where the lead seeps into the ground water? Are they repackaged and sold in other countries with more lax consumer protection standards?

Julie Vallese: Recalled products are destroyed. For those products that have a banned hazardous substance there is a procedure to dispose of these products without harming the environment.

That is why it is important for consumers to respond to the recalls and return any recalled product to the manufacturer.

Posted by: Stacey Garfinkle | August 14, 2007 3:05 PM | Report abuse

My husband and I have sent the loud and clear message out to friends and family who buy our kids toys that we will accept no toys made in China. Its not worth it. I personally think that these toy company executives should be ashamed of themselves for not instituting testing prior to these recalls. It was clearly irresponsible on their part to not check these articles prior to sale. Chinese factories are notorious for using lead based materials in children's items.

Posted by: mommyworks | August 14, 2007 5:02 PM | Report abuse

The CPSC has less than 420 employees to policy the whole country for unsafe products. They have jurisdiction over 15,000 different products, including everything for toys to electrical codes to all terrain vehicles to child resistant packaging for your tylenol. Its just too much for that few people. But instead, they have faced budget cuts over the past 5 years, reducing the workforce by about 20%, and the chairmans of late have tended to favor business and self-regulation over testing and standards. Just look at how a former ATV industry lawyer is now head of the enforcement branch of the CPSC, and how Bush tried to appoint the head lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers to the chairman position.

Posted by: RTI | August 14, 2007 6:10 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: StudentMom | August 14, 2007 10:38 PM | Report abuse

Hey, Stacey, check out this article:

Yet another China-made product with lead -- for our babies, no less. Only this time, they're denying any lead contamination.

Oh yeah, those of you who keep defending China, you're absolutely right -- it's not China's fault at all. Oh, except for the fact that China even allows lead paint. I mean, if you wanted to paint something with lead paint in this country, you couldn't even do it. We don't allow it. China, being the backwards country that is, still allows lead paint. But sure, why not keep allowing China to make products for our children? They'll be totally safe, right?

Posted by: Ryan | August 15, 2007 8:55 AM | Report abuse

fr David S:

>...As something that could be of interest to JA and others, why not look into craftsmen/women for locally handmade toys? It might not be Dora, but a there seems to be an advantage in this case to keeping away from branded image. Craft fairs and rennaisance fairs could be the ticket....

Only if one is willing to pay the HEFTY admission fee(s) to such fairs! also, most ren fairs are not in every single county/state, and craft fairs are usually in their heyday in the holiday seasons.

Posted by: Alex | August 15, 2007 10:27 AM | Report abuse

I am fortunate thar my parents kept a lot of my toys from when I was little. So I have a lot of the old fisher-price stuff from back when it was made in the US (and before the US regulatory agencies were gutted in the 80s- thank you Ronald Reagan).

People sell a LOT of old toys on ebay. Frankly, those toys were better anyway- more open-ended and less button-pushing.

Posted by: reston, va | August 15, 2007 11:49 AM | Report abuse

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