'More Lead-Poison Toys from China Recalled"
Remember, back in 2007, headlines like this about the millions
of toys recalled?
Parents across the United States feared that paint from their
child's beloved Thomas the Tank Engine might contain harmful levels
of lead. Coincidentally, other huge toy recalls occurred about this
time, too. Polly Pocket toys, for example, were recalled for having
small magnets that could fall out, be consumed and damage a child's
intestinal tract. The manufacturer of Aqua Dots pulled the craft
when it discovered it could be toxic if swallowed.
Suddenly, shopping for a toy felt like a bit like Russian
roulette. Worried families wondered how closely the U.S. Consumer
Product Safety Commission was monitoring toy production; many
demanded changes. Legislators responded, and in 2008, President
George W. Bush signed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act
into law. The act gave more "teeth" to the CPSC, and added stricter
regulations such as lowering the amount of allowable lead in toys,
and requiring third-party, independent testing of any product
intended for kids 12 or younger.
But ask any small toy company or retailer, and they'll say
families, schools and kids will suffer from an unintended
consequence of all this regulation: fewer quality, educational toys
that parents and schools really want to buy.
According to Kathleen McHugh, the president of the American
Speciality Toy Retailing Association in Chicago, many small toy
companies have sold their patents and products to larger companies
who could afford the increased cost of testing. In addition, some
respected European toy makers, such as Brio, opted to pull some of
their products rather than pay for a second round of tests to meet
U.S. regulations after already meeting stringent rules in
The consequence, she says, is that consumers don't have as many
toys to choose from, and available toys lack innovation and
"These small companies are founded by people who have a good
idea and they turn it into a small business," she says. "That's
where some of the best products have come from, and you won't see
as much of that because the cost to enter this market is very high
While she agrees that regulations are essential to consumer
trust, McHugh would like to see a balance struck.
Rick Woldenberg couldn't agree more. As chairman of the small
Vernon Hills toy manufacturer Learning Resources, Woldenberg has
been an outspoken opponent of the law. He has testified before
Congress, been interviewed on TV and in newspapers, and written
more than 600 blogs pleading for more common sense regulations.
He feels he and other reputable toy makers are being punished
because of a few bad apples.
"We're a highly ethical company with a lot of investment that
goes back decades in keeping our customers safe," he says, noting
that in two decades of selling to families and school systems,
Learning Resources had one recall of about 300 pieces.
The regulations, he argues, make no distinction between a toy
designed for a toddler, which will likely be chewed and slobbered
on for months, and educational toys meant for older children.
He cites a science kit his company developed for fifth- or
sixth-graders that included various types of rocks. As part of the
new law, he was required to add a label to each box warning that
the rocks within the product may contain lead, "which might be
harmful if swallowed."
"Let me tell you," he says, "it costs a great deal of money to
warn you not to eat rocks."
Woldenberg estimates spending more than $6 million in recent
years to pay for lawyers, new packaging labels and extra labor
costs. He says now, when his team discusses new ideas for toys,
many ideas are scrapped not because they are unsafe, but because
it's too much trouble to get them tested and approved.
The law limits lead content in any child's product to 300 parts
per million, down from 600 ppm; products using paint were dropped
from 600 ppm to 90. Such changes, Woldenberg argues, aren't based
on good science about how much lead exposure can cause actual harm
Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who has butted heads with
Woldenberg numerous times, is adamant that the changes were
necessary and restored public confidence.
"We made toys and children's products safer. Period."
Schakowsky serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which
oversees the CPSC, and has long been an advocate for consumer
safety. She notes that the regulations include older children
because those kids may have younger siblings, or may have a
disability that limits their understanding of safety. She also says
toy manufacturers were given several years to prepare for the
increased costs of testing products, and many have adjusted without
Some legislators have proposed relaxing the requirements on
using costly independent testing firms, a move that would horrify
Lisa Lipin. Eight years ago, the Skokie mom saved her 5-year-old
from choking to death on the cord of a toy called a Yo-Yo Water
Ball. Since then, she has lobbied to have the CSPC ban the toy, a
move the commission has not done even though it has reports of more
than 400 injuries from the toy, she says.
Lipin did manage to have the toy banned in three states,
including Illinois, but it can still be found easily on the
Internet. For Lipin, the new law and its stricter regulations don't
go far enough to protect children from manufacturers that are
either negligent or downright unscrupulous.
"If the toy companies are crying, give them a box of tissues,"
she says. "I think that this is profit over people, and since when
did a child's life become less important than the bottom line?"
Small toy retailers, such as Toys et Cetera, feel caught in the
middle of this debate, says president Nancy Stanek.
On the one hand, Stanek says, she has seen a drop in the number
of quality, innovative products from small U.S. toy manufacturers
and from popular European brands. She also says customers are
paying more for toys, which is due at least partly to the
manufacturer's increased costs of meeting new regulations.
"That's kind of a shame, but on the other hand, as a grandmother
of four little kids, I want them to be protected," she says. "Isn't
a child's safety worth it?"
Stanek, who owns four toy stores in the Chicago area, has been
selling high-end educational toys for more than three decades and
tries to inform her customers about the new law. She wishes there
was more publicity about the regulations because she senses
shoppers are still anxious about what is safe to buy.
Since this debate-between protecting children and the free
market-will likely continue for the foreseeable future, what makes
a safe toy may continue to be in question.
Lisa Applegate is a freelance writer, mom of two boys and
graduate student at DePaul University.
Lisa Applegate is a freelance writer and mom of one living in Chicago.
See more of Lisa's stories here.
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