Barbie’s Home Ruled a Toxic Site (Salon.com)
Katharine Mieszkowski, Salon.com
Lead-tainted toys continue to be recalled. But toy makers and China
don't deserve all the blame. U.S. regulators have been napping.
COLMA, Calif. — Preteen girls happily browse the Polly Pocket aisle
in Target Greatland in this city just south of San Francisco. Amid a
sea of pink sits a Polly Pocket! Pollywood Limo Scene Vehicle,
which two days earlier had been recalled. Three children had suffered
serious injury after eating magnets from similar toys, causing
intestinal perforations and requiring surgery. In a neighboring aisle,
several boxes of Barbie and Tanner, also under recall for dangerous magnets, tempt more little girls.
I try to buy a Pollywood limo and a blond Barbie,
but the cash register issues a warning for both products in large
letters: "Don't sell this item." The checker calls over a supervisor,
who explains why the items aren't for sale: "It's either a safety or a
quality problem. Sorry!"
There's no need to apologize for not selling me the toys. This
summer, Toyland, that ever happy place where fun is always in store,
morphed into a seedy underworld, chock-full of looming hazards that
could potentially poison, maim or even kill a child. Most recently, on
Wednesday, Mattel recalled 700,000 toys, citing lead in locomotives, bongo drums and Barbie's furniture, doghouse and, yes, her kitty condo too.
The great summer toy scare started with Fisher-Price,
a division of Mattel, which revealed in August that almost 1 million
Elmo, Cookie Monster, Dora the Explorer and Diego toys had been tainted
with lead-contaminated paint at a factory in China. Then, a couple of
weeks later, Mattel's Batman fessed up to his own magnet problems.
But the bad news in Toyland just kept coming. Et tu, SpongeBob Squarepants? Spinning tops and tin pails featuring Thomas and Friends and Curious George also contained lead. Toys "R" Us even yanked some boxes of crayons for containing lead. Then there was the children's jewelry, recalled from Buy-Rite and Toby N.Y.C., adding to the more than 150 million trinkets recently found to be contaminated with lead.
All of this no-fun news came while Toys "R" Us was summarily yanking vinyl baby bibs from its store shelves after a watchdog group raised concerns about the levels of lead in them. In May, Wal-Mart had done the same.
Mattel is now the subject of a class-action lawsuit charging that it
should pay for the testing and medical monitoring of children exposed
to its lead-tainted toys. And the whole debacle has resulted in at
least one death; the head of the Chinese company that Mattel blamed for
putting the toxic paint in the toys committed suicide.
Toy makers and China
— where 80 percent of toys sold in the United States are made — are
taking the heat for the recalls. But they don't deserve all of the
blame, say consumer advocates. As globalization has scattered
manufacturing of U.S. goods around the world, U.S. regulatory measures
have not kept up. "We went through globalization, but we didn't prepare
the regulatory agencies to do their job, both in terms of the law and
their resources," says Tom Neltner, an attorney and chemical engineer
who volunteers on the lead issue for the Sierra Club. The toy recall,
he says, exposes a U.S. regulatory system in disarray.
Indeed, given all the toy recalls issued by the Consumer Products
Safety Commission, parents might mistakenly believe that a SWAT team of
inspectors draped in red, white and blue has been cracking down on
rogue companies bringing faulty goods into the country to protect
children from bad and careless actors throughout the worldwide supply
chain. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"Recalls are not the solution to the problem; they are the result of major lapses," says Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America.
"When a recall happens, it's already too late because harm could
already have been done to the children who are playing with the
product." Even recalling a product doesn't ensure that it will get out
of the hands of children it could hurt. Only about 35 to 40 percent of
products recalled are typically returned, according to Newgistics, a company that markets technology aimed at improving recall rates.
In fact, it's the companies themselves that are prompting recalls,
not the government agency supposedly regulating them. "People think the
government tests every product, but it doesn't test any products unless
it has been made aware of a problem," says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
"The manufacturer or importer is responsible for making sure that [a
product] meets U.S. consumer safety standards. But any testing in
advance is done by the manufacturer not the government."
The CPSC has only about 100 inspectors in charge of regulating some
15,000 different products, including escalators, all-terrain vehicles,
chain saws and toys. Since July 2006, the commission hasn't even had a
chairman. In July 2007, the acting chairman of the commission sent a
letter to Congress, begging for help in modernizing the commission. Not
only is the CPSC underfunded, it hasn't been reauthorized since 1990,
so it has no ability to deal with newfangled notions like products
being sold on the Internet, much let the huge shift of the
manufacturing of goods overseas.
"The CPSC doesn't really do much of anything," says Charles Margulis, communications director for the Center for Environmental Health, which has exposed lead in children's lunchboxes and baby bibs.
"The companies almost always are the ones who find the problem, and
they bring the problem to the CPSC, and they say: 'We found this, and
we think it might be a problem; if you guys agree, we're going to do a
That means toy companies like Mattel are essentially
self-regulating. In the August recalls of millions of toys, Mattel
notified the Consumer Products Safety Commission about the problem, the
agency and the company worked out a voluntary recall plan, and they
jointly announced the recall. The CPSC doesn't even have jurisdiction
to test products before they come onto the market, which means it's
simply up to the companies selling them to make sure that they're safe
before they're sold.
"How long have these toys been coming in from China with lead in them?
Who knows?" says Mark Schapiro, author of "Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry
of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power." "We have
no independent way of knowing how long the country has been receiving
toys tainted with lead."
The Sierra Club states that the Environmental Protection Agency
could get more involved to keep kids safe from lead in imported
products, and recently settled a lawsuit with the agency over the
issue. "EPA can find out which factories are having these problems,"
says attorney Neltner. "If a factory in China made one product with
lead in it, then they probably made many other products with lead in
them, and then sold those to companies who may have no clue that they
sold a product with lead."
Lead is a cheap ingredient that makes paint lustrous and shiny. As
companies seek out low-cost manufacturing, it's not surprising lead has
leached into the supply chain. "The market is set up to reward
companies for selling the cheapest product possible, not for selling
the safest product possible," says Margulis of the Center for
There is currently no comprehensive federal law in the U.S. banning
lead in children's products. But since 1978, there has been a law on
the books outlawing the use of lead-based paint in them, which is,
obviously, not adequately enforced. The CPSC is currently working on
writing rules to limit the amount of lead in children's jewelry, which
can sometimes be made of lead, as well as the amount of lead in vinyl
products. Some states aren't waiting. In California, a law banning lead
in children's jewelry went into effect in September 2007.
In response to the recent recalls, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has
proposed legislation, the Children's Products Safety Act of 2007, which
would require independent, third-party testing of all toys and products
for children ages 5 and under, and prohibit the import of children's
products that have not been tested by a third party. Last year, when
dangerous levels of lead were discovered in children's gifts in the
U.S. Capitol gift shops, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Sen. Barack
Obama, D-Ill., introduced legislation that would set strict federal
standards for lead in any product marketed to children under age 6, but
it languished in Congress. Giving it another shot, Sen. Obama
introduced the Lead Free Toys Act of 2007, which would give the CPSC
authority to ban children's products containing lead.
The flurry of recent recalls may give the legislation some traction.
Until then, parents are simply left to wonder and worry what much-loved
toy will be recalled next.