Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that Target voluntarily recalled a piece of infant clothing suspected of containing excessive amounts of lead. Target has not recalled the item, which is a gray onesie stamped with the lettering "Green Baby." The company voluntarily withdrew the product, which means it removed it from shelves, blocked future sales and is offering a refund to customers who purchased it. But it has not notified the public that the item should be returned.

'Citizen regulators' take toy safety testing into their own hands

Blogger Jennifer Taggart tests children's products -- such as toy cars -- for toxins using an XRF device.
Blogger Jennifer Taggart tests children's products -- such as toy cars -- for toxins using an XRF device. (Jamie Rector For The Washington Post)
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By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009

Jocelyn Saiki keeps the bag hidden in a closet waiting for the next visit from her toy consultant, an environmental lawyer who packs an X-ray gun that detects lead, barium and other toxic chemicals.

Inside the bag, Saiki has stowed the playthings that well-wishers hoped would delight her little boy. A plastic doll. A popular noisemaker. And a little metal car that is suspiciously heavy, as if infused with lead.

A generation ago, parents and shoppers gave little thought to the ingredients of a toy car. But in this age of recalls, concern about chemical exposure and cynicism about government's ability to protect public health, consumers are taking on the role of regulator.

"I'm not going to rely on an agency that changes personnel based on administrations and takes years to make any kind of change," said Saiki, a 39-year-old Pilates instructor whose son, Alexander, is 3. "Not when it comes to protecting me or my child."

Saiki and seven friends near Mountain View, Calif., hired Jennifer Taggart, a lawyer based in Los Angeles who is also the creator of the blog, to fly north last year and test their household goods and toys with her gun, which resembles a heavy-duty hair dryer. They split Taggart's fee and travel costs, paying $250 a family.

Saiki ended up tossing out about 12 items, including a nesting doll from Alexander's grandmother and ceramic plates he had used regularly for meals, because they were coated in paint that was high in lead. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can damage the nervous system and cause blood and brain disorders, especially in children. So many others in Saiki's circle wanted their things to be tested, Taggart flew north again this year and visited another six households.

"We scheduled 2 1/2 hours per family," Saiki said. "But you start to wonder about everything and you're thinking 'This is my kid, I'll pay for another half hour.' And you're pulling things out of the closet. Before you know it, she's leaving. Then the next birthday, or next holiday comes, and you're wondering about all these new toys."

The emergence of the citizen regulators is fueled by the X-ray fluorescence analyzer, a hand-held device that makes do-it-yourself testing possible. Prices for the scanning gun range from about $17,000 to $35,000, keeping it out of reach for most individuals. But nonprofit groups have been buying them, holding free toy testing clinics at libraries, town halls and fire stations around the country. And families can rent them by the day for about $400.

"It's not designed for the consumer, but these consumer groups or moms with guns are out there," said Jon Shein of Thermo Fisher Scientific, which makes the Niton Analyzer line of XRF guns. The company, which has sold 23 XRF guns to the Consumer Product Safety Commission for use by its inspectors and laboratory workers, declined to release total sales numbers.

The Ecology Center, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has conducted free XRF testing around Michigan since the wave of toy recalls in 2007. "We're seeing more interest than last year, more awareness about the problem and more concern," said Rebecca Meuninck, one of the center's XRF gun-wielding testers, who has run six sessions since October and plans two more in January.

Despite new federal laws that significantly lowered the level of lead and other chemicals allowed in children's products, there are still toys and goods on the market -- and older ones that remain in households and second-hand shops -- that violate the standards.

In November, the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit environmental group in California, received a request by the consumer product Web site Z Recommends to test an item of infant clothing sold nationwide by Target. The "onesie," gray with a recycling symbol and the words "Green Baby" printed on the front, was made by Circo, Target's in-house brand.

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