By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009; A03
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 TheSmartMama.com 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.
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."