washingtonpost.com
Groups Expose Hidden Toy Hazards
Products With Lead, Magnets Still for Sale

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Despite a record number of toy recalls and promises of more-aggressive testing by toymakers and retailers, toys with high levels of lead and dangerous small magnets are still for sale in stores, two public interest groups said yesterday.

The Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, Calif., said that of 100 toys it purchased at Bay Area stores last week, nine had lead above the legal limit. One of those toys, a Starletz ceramic tea set, contained more than 20 times the legal limit, which is 600 parts per million. Other toys that had lead included a Dora the Explorer Game Pack and a SpongeBob SquarePants bat and ball set.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group identified almost 60 toys for its 22nd annual "Trouble in Toyland" report. The District group found ornamental zipper pulls for girls that were 65 percent lead by weight. A Diddl Alphabet necklace sold at Toys R Us also contained lead. A pair of earrings from Claire's contained tiny powerful magnets and may violate a new voluntary standard that says such products should carry a warning label about the dangers of magnets. If swallowed, they can tear or block internal organs and even cause death.

Toys sold at discount stores, such as the Starletz tea set and the ornamental zippers, didn't list a manufacturer. Eli Tov, manager of Almart, a store in Richmond, Calif., that sold the tea set, said he didn't know the toy contained lead.

"We're definitely going to take it out," he said.

Toys R Us spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh said the Diddl necklace would be removed from shelves pending further testing.

Claire's and the dollar stores that sold other toys that were tested did not return phone calls requesting comment.

Dan Martinsen, a spokesman for Nickelodeon, which licensed its Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants characters to the makers of the game pack and bat and ball sets, said Nickelodeon was in the process of contacting its licensees about CEH's findings.

The PIRG report also listed more than a dozen toys that pose choking hazards because of small parts, including a Bob the Builder Dancing Bob doll with a hammer that can come apart. Carrie Lesher, a spokeswoman for the manufacturer, RC2 of Oakbrook, Ill., said the company has received no reports of potential safety issues related to that product but will "give the findings due consideration."

The hazards were discovered despite efforts by retailers and toy manufacturers to retest toys after this summer's recalls of millions of Thomas the Tank Engine toys and Barbie accessories.

Joan Lawrence, the Toy Industry Association's vice president of toy safety, said she had not seen CEH's or PIRG's reports. She said that, in general, recent recalls show the industry has been effective at policing itself.

"Some of the retesting has led to recent recalls we have seen," she said. "The onus is on the importer and the manufacturer, and that's why we're conducting retesting, because we want to ferret out any remaining problems."

The TIA has set up a hotline, 888-88-4TOYS, and a Web site, http://www.toyinfo.org, on product safety.

Congress is considering requiring all toys be tested by independent labs, a move supported by the toy industry.

The industry and consumer advocates hope mandatory testing will do a better job of catching subcontractors that substitute unsafe paint or chemicals unbeknownst to the manufacturer. RC2, maker of Thomas and Friends toys, and Mattel blamed rogue subcontractors for using lead paint on their products.

Chinese officials recently confirmed that a subcontractor replaced a non-toxic glue with a toxic solvent in the recently recalled Aqua Dots craft toy that made several children in the United States and Australia ill. Since the recalls began, Chinese officials have increased inspections and shut down some factories, while complaining about what they see as unfair attacks on Chinese-made products.

Consumer advocates and lawmakers said the problem ultimately rests not with China but with the long-neglected Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency tasked with policing the safety of more than 15,000 types of products, including toys. Budget cuts have left the agency 15 percent smaller than it was three years ago and forced it to rely on antiquated testing facilities.

"At the end of the day, it's the responsibility of the U.S. government to ensure the safety of toys," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said. "You can't say to parents, 'Don't worry. We've asked the Chinese to do a better job.' "

"We need to beef up the whole agency. It's not all their fault, but they've stood by and not acted while this flood of contaminated toys has gone by," Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said.

CPSC acting Chairman Nancy Nord said in a statement yesterday that her agency has a "daily commitment" to toy safety.

"CPSC recalled 61 toys involving more than 25 million product units in 2007," Nord said. "Toys today are undergoing more inspection and more intense scrutiny than ever before."

Congress is considering legislation to overhaul the CPSC. Bills pending in the House and Senate would increase the agency's budget and the size of fines it can levy on companies that don't report safety problems. It would also ban lead in children's products and make it illegal to sell recalled products.

"The best gift Congress can give this holiday season is passing a piece of legislation," said Ed Mierzwinski, U.S. PIRG consumer program director.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company