Misplaced Anxiety Over Toys?

A worker inspects dancing toy guitars at Dongguan Da Lang Wealthwise Plastic Factory in China. The safety of toys made in China has been under fire.
A worker inspects dancing toy guitars at Dongguan Da Lang Wealthwise Plastic Factory in China. The safety of toys made in China has been under fire. (By Eugene Hoshiko -- Associated Press)
By Annys Shin and Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

With each passing day, American toy companies and their Chinese suppliers have another pair of eyes looking over their shoulders.

Since early this summer, Mattel, Wal-Mart and Toys R Us have said they would increase safety testing of toys. On Monday, Walt Disney Co. said it would do the same on toys that use its licensed characters. Yesterday, Chinese product-safety officials said they would take immediate steps to eliminate lead paint from toys bound for the United States, in part by increasing inspections. And today, executives from Mattel and Toys R Us are scheduled to testify before a Senate subcommittee.

But as scrutiny intensifies on the global toy supply chain, some industry analysts, academics and consumer advocates have begun to question whether the focus on the toys' foreign suppliers is obscuring an even bigger problem: design flaws that originate with U.S. toy companies.

"In the rush to fix this, we are missing a larger picture. Design problems have caused more injuries, so the companies should pay more attention to those," said Hari Bapuji of the University of Manitoba's business school, who recently co-authored a study of toy recalls over the past 20 years.

"Design flaws do account for more recalls than lead paint," said Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association. "It is unfortunate."

Keithley said that to some extent, recalls are inevitable: "Each year, 80 percent of our products are new products. . . . We try and think of everything [that might happen]. Sometimes . . . we have not thought of everything. As a result, when a company gets reports, we recall products."

One design feature that has led to serious injuries is the use of tiny, powerful magnets. In the past 12 months, North American toymakers recalled 15.8 million toys that contained magnets, compared with 2.3 million toys that had lead paint. The toys containing magnets, though manufactured in China, were designed in North America.

Magnets can be dangerous if they are ingested or inhaled. When two magnets in different parts of a child's digestive tract attract each other, they can block or tear internal organs. Mattel in November and again last month recalled a total of 9.7 million Polly Pocket magnetic play sets after three children required surgery after swallowing magnets that came loose. There are no mandatory safety standards regarding magnets in toys.

"I think a little focus has been lost on what the real toy safety issues are," industry analyst Jim Silver said. "Magnets and choking hazards are at the top of the list."

Nevertheless, toy retailers, manufacturers and lawmakers have focused more on rooting out lead paint, which has been banned in toys in the United States since 1978. Lead has been linked to neurological and behavioral problems. The Consumer Product Safety Commission hasn't received any reports of injuries from lead-painted toys because the effects of lead exposure are cumulative. Lead in metal jewelry, however, has been linked to the death of at least one child, and the CPSC is pursuing stiffer standards for such goods.

The Toy Industry Association has called for manufacturers to be required to test and inspect their products to prove they meet safety standards. It is working with the American National Standards Institute to come up with industry-wide testing procedures. The institute's proposal is due out by the end of the year, said Lane Hallenbeck, its vice president of accreditation services.

Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a Chicago group that advocates for product safety, said mandatory testing was "a great start" but would not detect design flaws, such as the one that led to the February recall of about 1 million Easy-Bake Ovens after the manufacturer, Hasbro, received 29 reports of children getting their hands or fingers caught in the oven opening.

Some consumer advocates have other problems with the industry's proposal.

Don Mays, Consumers Union's senior director of product safety, called it "a very bold move" but said the Consumer Product Safety Commission should be involved in enforcing any new requirement. The commission, Mays said, still needs more funding and staff to be able to perform spot checks and make sure independent labs doing testing are competent.

Keithley said the toy industry supports increased resources for the agency, but he stopped short of endorsing tougher fines for not reporting problems or allowing the agency to make complaints about products public.

Consumer advocates, for example, have said the agency should be able to post complaints about products. Currently, the agency can release that information only if a product has been recalled. Keithley said allowing the agency to give out more information would make it easy for consumers or competitors to raise groundless allegations about a product.

The industry's call for self-regulation and the testing initiatives of companies such as Disney and Wal-Mart have impressed at least one key lawmaker.

"This industry realizes that maintaining consumer confidence is critical," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who scheduled today's toy safety hearing and has been critical of recent recalls. "They did not go into denial. They accepted reality that they were selling toys. They held themselves to a higher standard. I am really pleased."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company