New regulations don’t toy with safety

‘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 Europe.

The consequence, she says, is that consumers don’t have as many toys to choose from, and available toys lack innovation and creativity.

“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 now.”

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 to kids.

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 problem.

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.

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