Get the lead out, toy soldiers ordered

December 14, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

With less than two weeks to go before Christmas, war is again at hand in the ageless realm of the toy soldier.

But this time the soldiers are up against lawyers and health officials on the far field of a hearing room in Albany, N.Y. The tiny men of metal may have finally met their match.

The issue, says New York State Health Commissioner Mark R. Chassin, is lead poisoning.

Although department spokesmen say none of the state's thousands of annual cases of lead poisoning has been attributed to model soldiers, Dr. Chassin concluded last week that the risk was still great enough to decree an immediate ban on the sale of all "figurines containing lead."

He also scheduled a hearing tomorrow for anyone who might object. For the manufacturers and sellers of leaded soldiers, who assail the ban as a sneak attack, the hearing could be the last chance to avert major financial losses during the all-important Christmas retailing season.

At the Compleat Strategist, an East Coast chain of hobby shops with its headquarters and three biggest stores in New York City, leaded soldiers and accessories are "a third of our business," worth about $250,000 in annual sales, owner Danny Kilbert said.

Such effects are being felt far beyond the boundaries of New York. The Armory, a Baltimore company, was one of 39 worldwide manufacturers and distributors to receive a copy of the decree from Dr. Chassin's office. President Max Lipman said his company has already canceled or modified about 30 of its holiday-season orders from New York retailers.

Winston Hamilton, who is helping organize the battle against the ban as executive director of the Game Manufacturers Association, said, "I think a conservative estimate would be that maybe a thousand people will lose their jobs. Merry Christmas."

Peter Slocum, the New York Health Department spokesman, said, "We recognize the importance of that," but he added that the prospect of heavy Christmas buying made it even more important to ban sales now.

Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a medical authority on lead poisoning and head of the Maryland Advisory Commission on Lead Poisoning, said, "The lead soldier, per se, is not a hazard."

But she applauded New York's action because, when it comes to the hazards of poisoning, "Lead is fundamentally incremental, and everybody's lead adds up. . . . It is very easy to single out one particular action and make it look silly, but remember that when we took lead out of gasoline everybody said that was silly, too," she said.

That sort of reasoning frightens soldier manufacturers and sellers most of all. "If New York passes it, it's going to go state by state," Mr. Lipman explained.

Nationally, leaded figures account for about $125 million in sales, about a quarter of the game industry's income, Mr. Hamilton said.

Until recently, leaded soldiers hadn't been deemed much of a threat in New York.

Of the 1.5 million children below the age of 6 who are considered to be endangered by lead poisoning each year in the state, about 30 percent are screened every year for levels of lead in their blood, and of those about 36 percent are found to have unhealthy levels of lead in their systems.

The culprits in most cases are lead paint in old homes and drinking water tainted by lead plumbing.

Leaded soldiers weren't counted as any factor in those totals, Health Department officials say, although the state has been looking for ways to regulate all lead products.

But Dr. Chassin issued a stern public warning Thanksgiving week urging parents not to buy lead figurines for their children, and nine days later, Dec. 3, he issued the outright ban.

"It came out of the blue, like wham-bam," Mr. Kilbert said from his New York City store. "They didn't even give us a warning."

Like many sudden conflagrations, this one started from a tiny spark -- a child-custody fight in a Westchester County divorce case.

Faith Schottenfeld, a Health Department spokeswoman, explained that two children suffering from lead poisoning had been living with their father, who happened to have a bunch of lead soldiers in the house. The children apparently had played with the soldiers.

But their home was also on the property of a county rifle range, and with plenty of lead ammunition around, nobody knows for sure how the children were poisoned.

The case piqued the Health Department's curiosity enough to lead to laboratory tests, which concluded that a child can easily get lead on his hands by playing enough times with unpainted lead soldiers. If the child then puts his fingers in his mouth, he might get enough lead into his system to be poisoned.

So on came the ban.

The makers and sellers of the soldiers say the state is overstating its claims, and they want to see more information about the lab tests.

They also argue that the soldiers, although usually sold unpainted, are bought to be painted, which puts a protective coating on them.

And, they say, the vast majority of purchasers are adults or older children who get them to use in war games or to display as part of a collection.

"And for anybody who is a true hobbyist," said Mr. Lipman, "the last thing they're going to do is let a kid sister or brother get ahold of these things."

Those points may all be true, Ms. Schottenfeld said, but children nonetheless are attracted to the figures and might want to handle them, and the state's attitude is, "better safe than sorry."

But manufacturers see a different motive at work: the chance for easy publicity. "This was an easy, cheap shot, and that's why it was taken," Mr. Hamilton said.

Industry representatives will go to court to seek a temporary restraining order, he said, and also are marshaling their forces for tomorrow's hearing in Albany.

"There are going to be a lot of angry people up there," he said.

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