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.
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'Citizen regulators' take toy safety testing into their own hands
Using the XRF gun, officials at the center found ink on the onesie contained lead at four times the legal limit. They notified the California attorney general, who sent a letter to Target just before Thanksgiving. Target voluntarily recalled the item, pulled the existing stock from its shelves and launched an internal investigation, according to spokeswoman Beth Hanson.
In one well-publicized case of citizen testing, things went awry.
A year-old Web site known as GoodGuide used an XRF gun to test one of the Zhu Zhu Pets, the electronic hamster that has become one of the best-selling toys this holiday season. The site reported that the Mr. Squiggles model contained levels of antimony, a heavy metal, in excess of federal limits. National media reported GoodGuide's findings, raising immediate alarm among parents.
The controversy raged for two days before the Consumer Product Safety Commission came to the defense of Zhu Zhu Pets, saying that the federal government requires a different kind of test for antimony and that the Zhu Zhu Pets were in compliance with federal standards.
Cepia LLC, the toy's manufacturer, said the controversy was so short-lived that it did not appear to impact sales. But it caused unnecessary panic, said spokesman Grant Deady. "It creates hysteria in the marketplace," he said. "You've got people taking their Zhu Zhu Pet that their kid has been playing with for three months and then walk into the store and say, 'I want my money back.' "
Dara O'Rourke, the founder of GoodGuide, apologized for the error and said his group should have used the federal test. The Web site has rated about 63,000 consumer products based on toxic chemicals as well as the environmental and social policies of the manufacturers.
"There's just huge concern on the part of average shoppers about what's in products," O'Rourke said. "Four or five years ago, it was just me and a couple of geeks. But there's been this transition in the marketplace. It went from the Whole Foods crowd being concerned about this to the Safeway crowd and now the Wal-Mart crowd."
Toy makers worry about fear-mongering.
"This year we had so many groups that were needlessly alarming parents" by using the screening guns and other devices, said Stacy M. Leistner, a spokesman for the Toy Industry Association. The technology, he said, "has a place, but it has to be used judiciously."
In California, which often sets trends for national environmental laws, a state regulation provides a financial incentive for private citizens to catch retailers that violate state chemical laws. Proposition 65 requires businesses to notify consumers when products contain chemicals the state says are tied to cancer, birth defects or reproductive toxicity. If a private citizen or group finds a product on a store shelf containing one of those chemicals and it lacks a warning label, the retailer can be sued. Most retailers settle the suits, and the citizen earns 25 percent of the civil penalties.
"It's sort of become big business in California," said Taggart, of TheSmartMama.com, who has not filed any such complaint. "With an XRF analyzer, it's really easy for them to go into a store and find things that violate the law."
The Center for Environmental Health, for example, earned about $30,000 after settling 37 complaints it brought last year, according to state records. Michael Green, the center's executive director, said he expects that figure to grow this year to several hundred thousand dollars as the group settles cases that have been pending for two or three years.
Sean B. Hecht, who directs the Environmental Law Center at UCLA Law School, said the statute cements the role of "citizen regulators."
"It's a recognition that government agencies are limited in their enforcement capacity," he said. "Some people have called it a bounty hunter provision, but the idea is to give an incentive to plaintiffs to bring these types of cases."