Once again, toys are turning up with high lead levels – and, once again, it was an advocacy group, rather than the Consumer Product Safety Commission, that did the tests and broke the news.

The nonprofit Ecology Center, working with other groups across the country, bought and tested 1,268 children’s products, and found that 35 percent of them contained lead. The results from their tests – which also looked for polyvinyl chloride, cadmium, and arsenic – are available at www.healthytoys.org.

Tracey Easthope, Director of the Center’s Environmental Health Project, explains why they took on the project:

The government is not testing for toxic chemicals in toys, and too many manufacturers are not self-regulating, so we created the nation’s first toy database to help inform and empower consumers …Ultimately consumers need to compel the federal government and toy manufacturers to eliminate dangerous chemicals from toys.

The Associated Press’s Jeff Karoub got a reaction from CPSC spokesperson Scott Wolfson, who said that the agency would seek to verify the group’s findings and initiate a recall if necessary. This isn’t a great comfort to those of us who know how ineffective recalls are and how easily the agency is stymied by uncooperative companies, but it could be a start.

Joan Lawrence, the Toy Industry Association’s vice president of standards and safety, doesn’t want parents to worry about the test results:

She said she hasn’t seen all of the Ecology Center’s findings but called them misleading because the testers did not appear to follow recognized test procedures for lead and other substances. The two most common ways are to use solutions to simulate saliva and digestion, and another to attempt to dissolve the surface coating.

The center and its testing partners performed what they describe as a “screening” of chemicals using a handheld X-ray fluorescence device that detects surface chemical elements.

“The mere presence of any substance alone is only half of the answer — you need to know if it’s accessible to the child,” Lawrence said. “We can’t tell that from what I know of the tests that have been done by this group.”

If the Toy Industry Association wants toys to be tested in a standardized way, perhaps it’s time for a regulation. In an unusual twist, the trade group actually backs such a move – provided it’s not too dramatic. Eric Lipton and Louise Story reported in the New York Times in September that the TIA has asked the federal government to impose mandatory safety-testing standards for toys sold in this country. The proposal they back would require companies to have independent labs check a portion of their toys according to uniform standards, and would not include a broad federal inspection program.

Companies and trade associations have pushed for weakened regulations and constrained agencies, and the Bush administration has delivered. It turns out, though, that too little oversight leaves the public vulnerable to hazardous products – and when the public realizes that they’re facing a serious risk, they often react by shunning the products that manufacturers worked so hard to shield from regulation.

Perhaps the toy industry will realize that lead-laden toys hurt their bottom line as well as children’s neurological development, and will make toys safer through a combination of regulation and self-policing. Until then, a lot of concerned parents will probably be using the Ecology Center’s list of the 10 Best and 10 Worst toys to guide their holiday shopping.

Comments

  1. #1 Tasha
    December 10, 2007

    Mandatory standards do work in the industry’s favor:

    * The companies look good in the eyes of consumers when asking for such standards.

    * When the standards are implemented, the companies no longer have to worry about an uneven playing field – everyone has to play by the same rules.

    * If something bad should happen, the companies can hide behind the oft-used phrase: “Our products are well within government standards.”

  2. #2 Liz
    December 13, 2007

    Yeah, in some ways it’s surprising that companies are so opposed to regulations. They probably worry that it’s a slippery slope, and that if they don’t oppose today’s proposed regulation that might be worthwhile, tomorrow’s proposed regulation might be more objectionable.

    To your third point, that’s actually being pushed — and implemented in some cases — as a limitation to liability. The Supreme Court is considering whether this “preemption” in the case of pharmaceuticals is constitutional.

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