Guerrilla Toy Testers Take Aim at Lead
Melanie Trottman, Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2008
Consumer watchdogs wielding handheld X-ray guns are testing toys on
shelves for unsafe levels of lead and other chemicals, giving retailers
— from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to mom-and-pop stores — a case of heartburn this holiday season.
This month, testers with the Center for Environmental Health, a
consumer advocacy group in Oakland, Calif., said that Wal-Mart
frog-charm jewelry contained levels of lead higher than allowed by
California state law. The group informed the California attorney
general's office, which then sent a notice of violation last week to
Wal-Mart, telling the company to remove the item from its stores,
according to Christine Gasparac, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.
said in a statement that it has "directed stores in California to
remove this item from our shelves and blocked its sale at registers as
we investigate further." The company said safety is a top priority.
The advent of guerrilla toy testing, enabled by technology, has
taken the toy industry to task again, just a year after scares about
unsafe toys so rattled holiday shoppers that Congress this year passed
a sweeping overhaul of consumer-product-safety regulation. Typically,
advocacy groups send out press releases disclosing their findings —
sometimes without first informing the affected retailers or
manufacturers. They often tell regulatory officials about any troubling
findings. The Consumer Product Safety Commission said it hears from up
to a dozen of these groups around the holiday season.
To be sure, the Toy Industry Association, a New York-based trade
group, says that consumer-group reports can unnecessarily alarm parents
during the peak holiday shopping season, and that the X-ray-gun testing
method can be faulty and unfair.
X-ray fluorescence — or XRF — is a technology used in various
handheld testing guns that can screen for about two dozen elements,
such as lead, cadmium and titanium. When the trigger of the
battery-powered device is pulled, a miniaturized X-ray tube inside
emits rays that strike the sample being tested. The elements in that
sample emit return rays with frequencies that indicate which elements
are present and in what amounts.
Operating the gun without proper training, which takes several hours
or more to learn, can compromise results, manufacturers say. No special
licensing is required, but the user must properly calibrate the device,
The Consumer Product Safety Commission uses the Niton XRF Analyzer made by Thermo Fisher Scientific
Inc. of Waltham, Mass. The agency's investigators began using the
device in 2007 amid a string of high-profile product recalls that
spurred public outrage about dangerous levels of lead in toys and other
children's items. Gib Mullan, the assistant executive director for the
CPSC's office of compliance and field operations, said it's a "great
device for screening products for lead" and heavy elements such as
cadmium and chromium.
While the CPSC uses the
X-ray gun to screen items it buys from stores or assesses at ports, it
still sends questionable items to its lab for additional testing. The
agency also conducts testing based on consumer-group reports, but "some
are better than others," Mr. Mullan said. The more reliable reports
have led to product recalls after they were confirmed in laboratory
tests. A report issued by the California Center for Environmental
Health, for example, led to the recall last year of 175,000 Curious
George dolls with excessive levels of lead.
"We want to be able to reassure parents that what they're buying for
their children for Christmas doesn't contain toxic chemicals," said
Caroline Cox, director of the center. She added that her group uses the
handheld X-ray technology only as an initial screening tool, and that
questionable items are sent to a third-party, certified lab for
confirmation before regulators are alerted.
Still, some consumer groups tend to use the handheld gun only, a
practice that has companies and industry trade groups crying foul.
Jack Schylling was driving to work two weeks ago when he heard a
report on the radio that a children's tea set made by his company,
Schylling Associates, was tested and contained worrisome levels of
lead. The consumer group Healthytoys.org,
a project of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based nonprofit group the Ecology
Center, had identified the product along with about 500 others that it
said had medium or high levels of "chemicals of concern."
Mr. Schylling said the test, which was conducted only with an XRF
gun, was flawed and contradicted results he had from an independent,
certified lab showing the product was safe.
"It seemed like it was fear mongering," said the president and
founder of the Rowley, Mass., company that makes reproductions of
antique toys for stores that include major retailers. "I feel like I've
really been treated unfairly."
After Mr. Schylling called Healthytoys.org to complain and sent
copies of lab tests, the group removed the test results of that toy
from its Web site pending further assessment, said Healthytoys research
director Jeff Gearhart. He said the report cited another Schylling
product that was just fine.
Mr. Gearhart said there are limitations to every test methodology,
including the ones conducted in labs. He said he doesn't send items to
labs because "ultimately it's affordability and the ability to rapidly
Lab testing is pricier and more time-consuming than using an XRF
scanner gun, which is also costly. Guns sold by one manufacturer, for
example, cost between $25,000 and $45,000, depending on the model. Once
the device is paid for, the cost of testing is labor only, some
consumer groups said, while laboratory tests for lead can cost about
Jon Shein, a marketing director at Thermo Fisher Scientific, said
the company "never suggested that this technology should replace
certified testing labs. We have always promoted the product as a
screening tool," he said.
During the CPSC's fiscal year 2008, one of its investigators in
Houston randomly picked toy samples the "old" way — by looking for
bright colors on toys and wooden blocks on store shelves. Bright paint
could be a sign of high levels of lead, Mr. Mullan said. The
investigator sent 30 samples to the agency's lab, which found only one
of them to be problematic. Conversely, with the XRF gun, 500 items were
sampled in the same amount of time by another investigator at the port
of Los Angeles. Of the 100 items sent to the lab for lead-paint
testing, half tested positive for troublesome levels.
"It really makes us more efficient," Mr. Mullan said.
The CPSC will be studying the ability of the XRF device to be used
for broader purposes now that the law will focus on lead content
instead of just lead paint on children's products — a requirement of
the sweeping Congressional overhaul of consumer-product safety
regulations in August. Tougher regulations take effect on Feb. 10 that
set first-time limits on lead and phthalates allowed in children's
Despite government efforts, consumers must remain vigilant, said Liz
Hitchcock, the public-health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest
Research Group, a consumer advocacy group.
She said her group doesn't use the X-ray devices to test toys, but
does send items to labs for testing, with the most recent findings
listed in PIRG's 23rd annual Trouble in Toyland report, issued last
month. The group warned consumers that it is still "buyer beware"
season, since many of the new consumer protections don't take effect
until next year.