Mike Shriberg

All I Want for Christmas Are Some Lead-Free Toys

Are the toys on your holiday gift list safe? Are they already on a recall list or should they be? As a parent, I am more than a little alarmed at recent developments. In August, Fischer Price recalled almost one million Chinese-made Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street character toys due to "impermissible levels of lead." Mattel followed in September with the callback of 675,000 Barbie accessory toys for the same reason.

Now it looks as if the summer spike in toxic toys is turning into a trend. In October, for example, Jo-Ann Stores expanded their recall of over 100,000 children's toy gardening tools. And by early November, two different companies recalled 760,000 toy cars and action figures sold at Dollar Stores, while Marvel Toys called back 175,000 Curious George plush dolls.

But it's not just toys from China that concern me, and it's not just lead. Many names I once trusted and invited into my home to amuse and entertain my two-year-old daughter -- Thomas, Polly, Elmo, Ernie, Winnie and Hannah, to name a few -- are now suspect. All the toy manufacturers, suppliers, shippers, retailers, and their regulatory overseers have to offer are recalls, many of which are voluntary. I'd hardly call that protection against the hazards of chemical exposure.

I am especially concerned about the threats posed by toxic toys because babies and young children are affected more than any other age group by exposure to hazardous chemicals. Their smaller size means that it takes less of a substance to poison them and their developing bodies make them more susceptible to permanent harm. Add to it the fact that younger kids often put toys directly into their mouths.

That's why the Ecology Center researched and built a new online resource to help holiday shoppers identify non-toxic toys. HealthyToys.org features research, test results and ratings of hundreds of toys, jewelry items and other children's products, from action figures to backpacks. Items are evaluated based on their levels of lead, PVC, cadmium, mercury, antimony and other toxic chemicals associated with hormone and reproductive problems, developmental and learning disabilities, asthma, and cancer.

While Ecology Center research finds that many toys are free of these harmful substances, test results on a significant number of products show troubling levels of toxicity. A few examples: The plastic pink cheeks of 'My Little Sunshine Mirror,' made by Sassy for "birth-plus" age group, tested at 5800 parts per million (ppm) of brominated flame retardants, 204 ppm of antimony, and 859 ppm of lead. Wonder World of Nature's 'Tyrannosaurus' had 1167 ppm of antimony, while the fabric of Royal Designs' Kids' Slippers had 1363 ppm of lead. A Hannah Montana shoulder bag registered more than 6000-ppm lead, and tests detected up to 400 ppm of cadmium in play food and 180 ppm in a costume. Nobody wants this outrageous amount of toxic chemicals in their children's mouths.

Our research found lead and other chemicals in cheap toys as well as in major brand names, in U.S.-made toys as well as those imported from abroad. Which leads us to one conclusion: Our chemical regulatory system is broken and needs to be fixed. There is virtually no government oversight on any chemicals used to make any children's products -- even those made in the United States.

When the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission was formed in the 1970s, it had 800 employees and a robust budget. Today, the agency has a full-time staff of a little over 400 people. And in real dollars, their budget is actually smaller. While imports from China have nearly quadrupled in the last 10 years, the CPSC currently deploys just 15 people at U.S. ports and has only one toy inspector for the entire agency. Further, the CPSC has little authority to regulate or restrict harmful chemicals.

Currently, legal responsibility for toy safety rests with the toy-sellers in the United States. Companies are required to adhere to safety standards but reporting violations is voluntary. In the case of Mattel's toy-truck recall, the company actually entrusted the testing of those toys to the very outsourced factory that was producing them. That amounts to the fox guarding the henhouse. And Mattel has a reputation for being one of the more responsible toy manufacturers.

The recent rash of toy recalls is a wake-up call to American consumers. It should also be a call to action. Visit HealthyToys.org to find out how to promote pending state and national legislation to better regulate some of these harmful chemicals. There are also sample letters and mailing addresses to manufacturers urging them to disclose and phase out hazardous chemical content from their products.

For the holidays, don't be afraid to include toys on your shopping list, just make sure to check it twice at HealthyToys.org.


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