Monday, December 24, 2007

"Is the toy you gave safe?"

Darcy Burner (Seattle P.I. op-ed):
This year a record 25 million toys have been recalled, most due to unsafe levels of lead. They included some of the most popular toys on the market, like Dora, Barbie, and Curious George toys. My son's Thomas train set was recalled. Can you imagine how hard it is to explain to a 5-year-old that his favorite toy is poisonous?
That these products made it onto store shelves -- and into our homes -- is bad enough. Even worse, many children's products still contain high levels of lead and cadmium. Parents have a right to expect that their children's toys are safe. Unfortunately, as toy after toy was recalled, parents -- myself included -- have grown increasingly worried this holiday season.

We should be. Joined by elected officials across the Eastside, last weekend I sponsored seven free toy testing sessions for anxious parents. The results were disturbing, to say the least.

Of the 479 toys tested, 47 items -- 10 percent of the total -- contained lead levels beyond the 40 parts per million maximum that the American Academy of Pediatrics considers safe. Nine items tested positive for cadmium, also toxic.

A red plastic Lincoln Logs roof tested at 1,488 parts per million for lead (37 times the AAP maximum). A plastic Sesame Street Bert figure tested at 5,346 ppm (133 times the standard). A Tinkerbell pink rolling backpack tested at 533 ppm. A Winnie the Pooh place mat contained 985 ppm. A Fisher Price Flip Track crane owned by my son tested at 10,600 ppm, or 265 times the AAP standard.

The children's character place mats tested contained high levels of lead: Dora, Spiderman and Winnie the Pooh all tested positive. Cooler-style lunchboxes and soft coolers had high lead content as well.

None of these items has been recalled. It's not enough to know whether your toys were in the 77 separate recalls so far this year; parents should be suspicious of every plastic toy, painted toy, mug, plate, cooler, place mat and bag your child encounters. No one has been ensuring they are safe for our children.

Why is this happening? The answer is clear -- the Consumer Products Safety Commission has been gutted. In 1980, 978 people worked there; now the CPSC has only 400 employees to monitor 15,000 categories of products, and only one is assigned full-time to test toys. Meanwhile, the current CPSC head (a former industry lobbyist) and her predecessor took nearly 30 lavish junkets paid for by industries they oversee.

Think about it -- children are being put at risk while those tasked with keeping them safe are too busy hobnobbing in resort locales with toy industry lobbyists. This is a scandal, but it is also just business as usual in Washington, D.C., where regulatory agencies have been starved of resources and put under the control of political appointees with cozy industry ties.

Change may come, albeit too slowly. This week the House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation that will modestly expand the CPSC's resources and gradually tighten the outdated federal allowable lead limit to 100 parts per million. Even if this bill survives -- the Senate has not acted -- it too little, too late. The House standard is still more than double what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends -- and toy manufacturers will be given four years to get there.

That is not good enough. Our elected leaders in the other Washington must make a real commitment to better testing and enforcement of toy safety laws.

In the meantime, parents are stuck playing a game of toxic Russian roulette with the toys they buy their children.

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