Toys story

If you’re an average American consumer, mid-to-late December is the exact time (Christmas? Hanukkah? Kwanzaa?) when you tend to purchase toys, lots of toys, mountains of toys. You buy them for kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews, friends’ kids … maybe even for yourself. This year, it’s weird to realize how much this annual genuflection to toys has morphed, for many of us, into an angst-ridden search to find toys that are safe.

When did toy buying become so treacherous?

First we had a string of recalls that managed to smear the reputation of (gulp!) Barbie, Big Bird and Elmo. Mattel announced recalls that involved each of these Big Three because lead paint—which is toxic if ingested by children—was used at production facilities in China. (And let’s face it, when you give a child a toy, it almost always ends up in that child’s mouth.)

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Soon we were looking at another memorable recall: A product named Aqua Dots beads, when accidentally swallowed, releases a chemical that converts into a toxic drug once metabolized. Multiple instances of kids becoming comatose after swallowing the beads, caused an alarm and 4.2 million Aqua Dots “units” were recalled. The beads were also made in China, a country that has come to produce 80 percent of the toys sold in the United States.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that, since 2004, recalls of products made in China have more than doubled. The CPSC also reports that recalls due to high lead levels in toys have skyrocketed. The CPSC should know since it’s the understaffed agency that holds the regulatory stick when it comes to toy safety.

Thankfully, this increase in recalls has finally caused Congress to kick into gear with reform bills in both the House and Senate. The House bill would basically overhaul the CPSC with a focus on protecting children. It would increase the CPSC’s budget, reduce the amount of lead permissible in products and renovate test labs. Over on the Senate side, S. 2045 was passed last month and would double the CPSC’s budget and mandate more safety inspectors and pay more attention to consumer safety at ports of entry. Both bills would increase penalties for violators and allow stronger recall authority.

Congress should put the pedal to the medal over the next month and pass some combination of these reforms. But be advised: To do so, our representatives in Washington, D.C., will have to resist the chemical, manufacturing and retail lobbyists who are working overtime to fight these bills.

On the California front, we were pleased that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a related reform measure into law. AB 1008 will stop the manufacture, sale and distribution of toys that contain something called phthalates, the dangerous chemicals added to plastic that makes toys soft and flexible. Phthalates have been linked to reproductive defects, premature birth, liver and thyroid damage, testicular cancer and the early onset of puberty, which may lead to breast cancer.

Now more than ever, we need strong consumer safety laws to protect our kids—all year round—from toxic toys.