Rising Tide Of Unsafe Imports

Reform is sought at federal level

Regulation

Product Recalls

August 15, 2007|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN REPORTER

Yesterday's recall of 9.5 million more brand-name toys made in China - on the heels of tainted pet food, contaminated toothpaste and Sesame Street toys covered with lead paint - has safety advocates demanding reforms in the way imported products sold in the U.S. are tested before they are put in stores.

And some vinyl baby bibs sold at Toys "R" Us - including a store in Maryland - appear to be contaminated with lead, laboratory tests have shown, making the inexpensive bibs another example of a made-in-China product that might be a health hazard to children, The New York Times reported.

The vinyl bibs, bearing illustrations of baseball bats and soccer balls and Disney's Winnie the Pooh characters, sell for less than $5 under store-brand labels, including Especially for Baby and Koala Baby.

Tests financed by the Center for Environmental Health of Oakland, Calif., found lead as high as three times the level allowed in paint in several styles of the bibs purchased from both Toys "R" Us and Babies "R" Us stores in California.

A separate test at a lab hired by the Times of the same Toys "R" Us bibs, bought in Maryland, found a similar level of lead.

Kathleen Waugh, a Toys "R" Us spokeswoman, said the company had done its own tests on the bibs as recently as May and found them in compliance with safety standards for lead levels. "Our uncompromising commitment to safety has been, and continues to be, our highest priority," she said in a written statement.

Officials from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates children's products, said that they agreed that lead had no place in bibs.

But their own recent tests of baby bibs on the market in the United States found that the lead, when present, was at levels low enough that a child chewing on or rubbing the bib would not get an unhealthy dose.

As a result, the agency urges parents to discard vinyl bibs only if they are ripped or otherwise deteriorated.

Much of the apparatus that governs product safety is based on the honor system, with companies testing their own products for contaminants and setting their own safety standards. It leaves holes in the safety net that consumers have long assumed is protecting their children from hazardous toys, their pets from poisonous food, themselves from dangerous food and drugs.

"Unfortunately it takes a problem like this to focus reform, but this is the time," said Rachel Weintraub, director of food safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit association of consumer advocacy groups. "This testing needs to take place before the product hits the market."

More and more products are being imported into the United States from China, including 80 percent of children's toys, 90 percent of lighters and more than 90 percent of fireworks. Some ubiquitous food additives - wheat gluten and ascorbic acid, to name two - now come almost exclusively from China.

But very little of what's produced in China or other exporting nations is inspected as it enters the United States. While the Consumer Product Safety Commission has the power to stop products at the ports, it doesn't do so as a matter of course, acting when it receives intelligence that an unsafe product is on its way. Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tests less than 1 percent of imported food. Both agencies have had staffs slashed in recent years.

The CPSC is doing "as good a job as we can do in terms of using the resources we have to find products that have a violation," said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the agency.

Yesterday, toy stores were cleared of 9.5 million Mattel toys, including Polly Pocket dolls and accessories considered dangerous because small magnets inside them could come loose and be swallowed by children. Also on the recall list were die-cast versions of the character Sarge from the movie Cars, due to lead paint. Nearly two weeks ago, 1 million Fisher-Price toys, many of them figures of Sesame Street characters, were recalled because of lead paint used in a Chinese facility.

The summer of many recalls began in June, when 1.5 million Thomas the Tank Engine toys were pulled after lead was found in the red paint used on the wooden pieces made in China.

Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association, said yesterday's recall shows the safety system is working and the numbers of troublesome toys are small, considering that 3 billion toys are sold each year in the United States.

"When something like this slips through the safety net, it takes the products out of the marketplace," he said. "People can feel very confident about the toys that are on the shelves."

Keithley added that the blame shouldn't be placed on China. He said many of the companies he represents test their products before they leave China and many retailers in the U.S. test them again before consumers have a chance to take them home. Still, he said, his members would be willing to "take another look at safety."

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