Jane Kay
February 10, 2009

A federal law regulating toxic chemicals in children’s products goes into effect Tuesday, placing retailers in California under additional pressure to clear the shelves of toys containing illegal amounts of lead and other toxic compounds.

Until now, California with its tough anti-toxics law was the only state to take legal action against manufacturers and other businesses that sold lead-tainted toys. But beginning today, companies selling such goods face new penalties nationwide.

Even before the law took effect, two giant retail chains, Longs Drug Stores and Rite Aid, removed three styles of Valentine’s Day mechanical singing-and-dancing plush animals from their shelves after receiving calls from Attorney General Jerry Brown’s office.

The red plastic guitars attached to “Wild Thing Gorilla,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg Dog” and “Sing & Dance Puppy,” manufactured in China by Dan Dee International, contain levels of lead that may violate Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.

Based on metal testing, the toys may also violate the new federal law, state officials said.

In a preview of what’s to come under the new law, the attorney general’s office notified the two retailers after it found that the problem toys were purchased there.

There are no known safe levels of lead, a metal that can damage the human nervous system even at very low concentrations. It remains in the body for many years. Children are especially vulnerable; adults also suffer harm.

Recalls led to law

Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 after recalls of 20 million toys tainted with lead in paint, jewelry and clothing, which primarily came from China. The law is aimed at ridding children’s products of lead and some forms of phthalates, which are found in PVC plastic.

State attorneys general can enforce the federal law and remove dangerous products from the marketplace. Manufacturers and importers must test and certify that the toys have passed U.S. safety standards before they are sold.

The Toy Industry Association, National Association of Manufacturers and other trade groups had lobbied against the law. One argument was that it would go into effect too quickly, leaving them with the toys that they manufacture many months in advance of sales. Small businesses have complained that the testing requirements are burdensome.

In January, the Consumer Product Safety Commission extended the testing deadline by one year for most products. Environmental groups say the extension is illegal, and they are considering legal action. Last week, they won a ruling that halted toymakers from selling off phthalate-tainted stock after today.

Questions on testing

While businesses are barred from selling illegal products after today, it is not clear how retailers will know what’s in the products without industry testing.

Gary Holcomb, president of Dan Dee International, which has offices in Jersey City, N.J., and manufacturing operations in China, says lawmakers haven’t provided enough time to comply with the new law. The company sells seasonal holiday toys to Costco, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Kmart and Sears, among others.

Holcomb said he learned of questions about the mechanical singing-and-dancing gorilla and dogs when Longs and Rite Aid advised his company that they had been notified by California and were removing the toys as a precaution.

“I have received no evidence that there is a problem with those toys,” Holcomb said last week. In September, laboratory analysis verified that Dan Dee’s plush toys met current standards that precede the stricter rules, he said.

Valentine’s Day toys

The presence of lead in the plastic guitars came to light when the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland tested two dozen toys in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day. Seven were made by Dan Dee, and three of those contained the only high levels of lead found in the two dozen products, said Caroline Cox, research director for the group.

Lead found in one of the toys was 15 times higher than the new federal limit, Cox said.

Such tests are paid for with a grant from California’s Toy Testing and Outreach Fund, which grew out of a lawsuit filed in 2007 by Brown and the Los Angeles city attorney against Mattel and its subsidiary Fisher-Price; RC2, which makes Thomas the Tank Engine; and other companies.

In a settlement of the suit in December, the companies agreed not to sell any toys they knew contained lead and paid $550,000 to set up the fund to identify problems soon enough to avoid recalls. They also paid more than $1 million in costs and penalties.

Getting lead out of kids’ products

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 takes effect today, barring the sale of toys and other products containing lead and phthalates. The law:

— Is aimed at lead in products for children 12 and younger, and plastic softeners called phthalates in products for children younger than 3.

— Gives state attorneys general authority to enforce consumer product safety laws and act to remove dangerous products from shelves.

— Requires manufacturers and importers to test and certify that toys have passed U.S. safety standards before they are sold. The federal government granted manufacturers a one-year extension for testing of most products. But businesses will be barred immediately from selling products that violate the new law.

— Sets fines up to $100,000 per violation, $1.85 million to $15 million for repeated violations and up to five years in prison for knowingly violating the law.

Toy testing this week: Contra Costa County Health Services is holding free tests of toys Wednesday from 10 a.m. to noon at Monument Community Partnership, 1760 Clayton Road in Concord. For information on lead poisoning, go to links.sfgate.com/ZGBN.