Over a million toys recalled due to high lead--Closing barn doors after the horses are gone?
    American Girl voluntarily recalled 180,000 children’s jewelry items sold at two stores between 1999 and 2006 because of high lead. But American Girl isn’t alone. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued recalls due to high lead for over 1 million toys in March and February 2006 alone. That’s one million children innocently playing with hazardous substances. And one child died from lead poisoning after swallowing one of these now recalled toys. It makes me wonder how much undetected lead is out there there is in children’s jewelry and other toys (see Canadian Broadcasting Company’s story).
    What kind of enforcement does the U.S. carry out against retailers and manufacturers who market lead-laden toys? It looks like the toys get recalled, period. While the company’s profits accumulate, so do the effects of lead exposure in the child. Perhaps the child who has high lead toys develops attention problems or becomes more aggressive against peers. And maybe the child’s school performance slips. No one suspects that a toxic chemical in toys could be the cause. Only if more blatant symptoms of lead poisoning occur (such as loss of appetite, digestive difficulties, or motor problems) is the pediatrician likely to discover lead exposure as a contributor to the behavioral symptoms. After the damage is done then the lead in the toys be noticed. If there’s no peeling paint in a lead-poisoned child’s home, then they start testing the toys.
    Just as parents won’t know whether their children have been damaged by the lead in toys, the retailers in the 6 recent high lead recalls probably didn’t know they were marketing poisons to children. A large chain like Wal-Mart or Target ought to hire a lab to test toys, but a small retailer can’t afford it.
    I think the manufacturers ought to assure that toys comply with safety requirements. But the manufacturers are in China, even if the item has a U.S. trademark on it. All six of the recently recalled toys were made in China, and there are 20 times more recalls of toys made in China for choking hazards due to small parts. About 75% of U.S. toys are now made in China. How can we get the manufacturers to comply with our rules so that we prevent lead poisoning rather than react to it when it is too late?
    The U.S. CPSC signed a “Memorandum of Agreement” with China that covers toys. U.S. officials met with Chinese officials in September 2005. The consequences for not following the CPSC’s voluntary standards for toys are “CPSC may issue a recall”. This wins my 2 + 2 = 3 award because by the time the recall comes out, my child might be grown up! American Girl sold the high lead jewelry in their stores starting in 1999. An 8 year old who got a necklace in 1999 would be a 15 year old learning to drive a car by now. That’s closing the barn doors after the horse is gone for sure. Dollar Tree sold lead toxic jewelry starting in 2003, and it is just now under recall.
    Maybe we need to go back to having U.S. Customs agents inspect and seize items that don’t meet import standards. In 1993 U.S. Customs agents seized over half a million packages of crayons and sidewalk chalk that contained lead.  $300K of crayons sent to the dump. That might get someone’s attention.
    My Libertarian blog readers probably think no government intervention is called for at all. “Let the buyer beware.” But the average person can’t tell lead is there--it takes lab tests. And the most fundamental job of government is to protect the citizens. Usually we think “protect” means “go to war”, but if you can be poisoned in the name of profit, then preventing the poisoning counts as protection. As RFK Jr. says, “Someone is getting rich by making someone else poor.”
    But the problem goes deeper than the fact that Chinese manufacturers are shipping toxic toys to the U.S. The toy manufacturing plants in China are called toxic sweatshops by labor movements around the world. The International Council of Toy Industries has mandated ethical practices in China, along with auditing and verification. Auditing has proven to be very difficult. The website China Labor Watch has some interesting perspectives on manufacturing ethics, a sweatshop report, and a whole section on Wal-Mart. And the National Labor Committee has a campaign called “Toys of Misery” that highlights illegal and uncompensated overtime as well as toxic health hazards in China’s toy factories.
    In the meantime, don’t put your necklace in your mouth.
Friday, March 31, 2006