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Recall of Toy With Dangerous Chemical Prompts Support for Mandatory Testing

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007

More than 4 million children's craft kits, recalled because they contained beads coated with a chemical that turns into a dangerous drug if ingested, would not have reached stores if toymakers had been required to have them tested at independent labs, consumer advocates and lawmakers said yesterday.

Congress is considering legislation to require manufacturers to pay for independent tests by certified labs following the recent recalls of toys for excessive amounts of lead. Lead paint has been banned in the United States since the 1970s.

The chemical suspected in Wednesday's recall of Aqua Dots products -- 1,4-butanediol -- is banned for use in toys in the United States, and independent labs would have to test for it, said Donald L. Mays, senior director for product safety at Consumers Union.

Aqua Dots, which retailers expected to be a popular gift this holiday season, consist of colored beads that can be arranged in different shapes. The coating on the beads contains glue that fuses them when they are sprinkled with water. They were sold from April to this month in the United States and distributed by Spin Master, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said.

A spokesman for Moose Enterprises, an Australian company that sold the beads under the name Bindeez, said company officials think the beads were contaminated after a Chinese subcontractor substituted the 1,4-butanediol for a nontoxic glue. Once ingested, the chemical breaks down into the drug gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), which can render a person senseless and is known as a "date-rape" drug. Product-safety officials in Australia, the United States, Canada and Britain are still sorting out which batches were contaminated. But because of the severity of the hazard, all Aqua Dots products were recalled, including kits with different accessories such as a drying fan, applicator pen and spray bottle.

The CPSC said two children -- including 20-month-old Jacob Esses of Jacksonville, Ark. -- swallowed the beads, vomited and fell into temporary comas.

Lawmakers, consumer advocates and toy industry officials said the recall bolstered the case for mandatory testing.

"Such a requirement would prevent any safety hazards arising from the substitution of materials," said Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association.

Many companies hire labs to test products to ensure that they meet safety standards. But toy industry officials have admitted that the largely voluntary system did not stop the sale of millions of lead-painted toys and have asked Congress to require testing by independent labs, which would be certified by the government or a standards-setting body.

In the case of Aqua Dots, neither the manufacturers nor the retailers caught the toxic chemical's presence.

A spokesman for Moose Enterprises said that while the company "tests to the highest standards," it was alerted to the problem by doctors treating injured children.

Donna MacNeil, a spokeswoman for Toronto-based Spin Master, said the company relies on independent labs to test its products but did not find out that children had become sick until it was notified by Jacob Esses's mother in Arkansas on Friday.

Mays said the importers' failure to find that the glue had been switched suggests that they were not testing enough. "The problem is you can't test one batch. You have to do continuous testing," he said.

The beads also reached stores despite stepped up safety testing by retailers and manufacturers.

Wal-Mart, which had put Aqua Dots on its list of top 12 Christmas toys, was among the retailers that pulled them from its shelves Wednesday. In August, Wal-Mart asked its suppliers to document recent testing for lead paint, magnets and small parts but did not ask for tests for 1,4-butanediol, spokesman Melissa O'Brien said. "The discovery of this chemical has to come through specific testing for the chemical agent," she said.

Consumer advocates said the onus is on manufacturers and retailers to protect consumers from hazards like the one found in Aqua Dots, which, unlike lead, cannot be detected without sophisticated laboratory tests.

"Parents and toy-givers certainly couldn't anticipate the apparent inadvertent presence of a date-rape drug in a child's toy," said Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG.

Consumers yesterday were left to come up with their own strategies for avoiding toxic toys. Jenna Kwan of North Potomac, who was shopping at White Flint yesterday, took an extreme approach: She said she threw out all of her children's toys that were labeled "made in China." She asked her family and friends not to give her children, Greg, 1, and Caitlyn, 3, toys manufactured in China for Christmas.

"If it's made in China," she said, "I don't buy it."

Staff writer Ylan Mui contributed to this report.

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