At Toy Stores, Recall Casts Doubt on Trusted Friends
Parents' Alarm Fed by Repeated Scares Linked to China

By Donna St. George and Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 3, 2007

Tammi Houton, like a lot of parents yesterday, found herself surprised that peril could lurk behind some of the most familiar faces in children's toys. Elmo? Dora the Explorer? SpongeBob SquarePants?

All were part of a worldwide safety recall of 83 types of Fisher-Price toys deemed potentially hazardous because of lead-tainted paint. In all, nearly 1 million toys were recalled in the United States.

"It's really alarming," said Houton, a mother of three shopping for a birthday gift yesterday in the Toys R Us in Rockville. In toys for young children -- who put everything in their mouths and for whom lead is a well-known hazard -- "it's about the worst thing you could do," she said.

For Houton and others, what made the recall especially troubling was the source of the problem: a manufacturer in China. Just seven weeks ago, there was a recall of 1.5 million Chinese-made Thomas & Friends train toys. Last spring, pet owners across the country panicked amid the largest pet food recall in U.S. history, traced to contaminated ingredients from China. There have also been scares recently about unhealthy seafood, shoddy car tires and other products from China.

"It does make me worry whether anything else I have in the house is really safe," Houton said. So much comes from China, she said, as she read the small print on the gift she had just bought, a Barbie Dream House. It, too, was made in China, she said.

"What do you do?" she said. "What do you trust or not trust?"

At a Target in Leesburg, Courtney Troiano said she has become more wary of Chinese goods. "It's one thing if they say they're meeting the regulations, but how often do they go in and inspect?" said Troiano, of Leesburg, as her daughter Claire, 4, moved the arms of a plastic Sing Around the World Dora doll.

Her concerns about food, toys and other items from China seemed to be hitting a tipping point. "Recently with the tainted food, I guess you have to think about where it's coming from," Troiano said.

Consumer advocates, noting that lead was banned from the paint on children's toys in 1978, called for a tighter system of inspections and suggested that parents immediately take away any toys included in the recall. Lead is toxic when ingested, and experts say it can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

The toys at issue in the wide-ranging recall read like a wish list for preschoolers, including Dora's Talking House, Cookie Monster Saxophone and Sesame Street Shape Sorter. But the recall only covered the 83 items sold from May to August under the Fisher-Price line of toymaker Mattel.

"I think the problem is that . . . as American manufacturers are becoming more distant from the production of their products, these lapses in oversight are occurring more frequently," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America.

Parents had much the same feeling, as they learned of a potential risk in the seemingly most harmless of goods.

"We're definitely into Elmo," said Olga Meisel, a mother of two in Bethesda. In June, when the Thomas toys were recalled, she found two small items among her son's playthings. She threw them out.

"I'm afraid sometimes we're trying to save some money on labor, but in the long run we compromise" on safety, said Meisel, who recently bought a specialty toy marketed as nontoxic. "I try, but we can't protect them from everything." Still, she added, "this is a really big list."

At the Leesburg Target, Kim Peterson of Purcellville was cruising the toy aisles yesterday afternoon with sons Jonah, 4, and Caleb, 6. Peterson said she decided not to get any more toys from China after she found out about the recent Thomas train recall. She planned to return Jonah's 10 red Thomas engines.

"I'm a little bit nervous that bits will break off and he'll chew them," she said of Jonah. "The paint's been peeling off, and he's chewing on it, and I'm afraid of the long-term effects."

Her younger son kept interjecting: "Why can't I get a train today?"

As parents came up with their own safeguards, retailers said the tainted toys were off their shelves. But at the Toys R Us in Rockville yesterday, a shopper could still buy non-recalled toys such as Elmo Sing 'n' Hum, Hokey Pokey Elmo and Elmo's musical Peek-a-Boo Gym.

Jewel Baxter of Laytonsville, who was with her grandson at the Toys R Us, said the latest recall had not affected the family but the Thomas one had. "It's kind of scary," she said, "because you buy things for your kids, and then they have played with them for a long time -- and then you find out that something is wrong."

Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel at the Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, said her organization has called for more inspections and controls.

"There are many companies that are outsourcing their products because labor is cheap and materials are cheap," Greenberg said. "However," she added, "there is a larger cost."

This recall in particular, she noted, hits home with many families. "This is Elmo. This is Dora the Explorer," she said. "These are characters near and dear to our hearts."

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