No rules for recalled toys

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October 10, 2007|By Abigail Goldman and Marc Lifsher | Abigail Goldman and Marc Lifsher,LOS ANGELES TIMES

What has happened to the millions of toys, lunch boxes and other products recalled recently because they contain hazardous levels of lead or lead paint?

No one is exactly sure. And that worries some consumer activists, environmentalists and others who warn about weak oversight of the disposal process.

Lead-laced products, they warn, could contaminate landfills or groundwater. Even worse, they say, is that some recalled toys and other goods get resold - both in the United States and abroad.

"There are so many recalls right now and nobody is saying, `What's next?'" said Charlie Pizarro, associate director for the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, Calif. "There is no answer for how to dispose of them."

There is no single, nationally accepted procedure for dealing with such items from the time of recall to final, safe disposal.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency that oversees the recall of lead-tainted and other dangerous items, asks consumers to return the products to the company recalling them. Those companies are then bound by state laws regarding disposal of hazardous materials, an agency spokeswoman said.

"You can't just throw it in the kitchen garbage can; there are regulations on disposal," spokeswoman Julie Vallese said. "The companies are well aware of state laws and state guidelines they need to follow."

But Jamie Cameron-Harley, a spokeswoman for the California Integrated Waste Management Board, which overseas municipal garbage dumps and recycling programs, says she's mystified about the ultimate destination of the lead-laced products - especially those returned to companies.

"Everyone says give them back to the manufacturer, but we don't know what the manufacturer does with it," she said.

In other cases, state agencies have urged consumers to bring lead-tainted items to local hazardous-waste disposal sites or to state offices.

Lead paint has been banned in the United States since 1978 because lead poisoning can cause brain and neurological problems, particularly in children.

According to experts, only a fraction of consumers actually return recalled products to manufacturers - mostly big-ticket items that would be expensive to replace. Mattel, which has issued dozens of recalls of toys in recent years, said that, historically, about 6 percent of recalled products are returned.

Several toy manufacturers were contacted for this article, but only Mattel would comment on its plans for returned lead-tainted products. The company, based in El Segundo, Calif., said it was still evaluating how best to handle returned products from its recalls of 2.2 million toys possibly contaminated with lead paint.

RC2 Corp., the Illinois manufacturer that this year recalled more than 1.7 million Thomas & Friends wooden railway toys because of unsafe lead levels, said the company so far had gotten back about 70 percent of the 1.5 million toys it recalled in June. It wouldn't say what it was doing with them.

Likewise, Oriental Trading Co., a Nebraska company that this year recalled 132,000 children's "religious fish necklaces," declined to discuss its disposal plans.

Mattel said it planned to recycle as many components of returned toys as possible, including selling or reusing zinc and resins used to make the toys.

Leftover remnants, including any lead, will be handled by outside companies hired for their expertise in recycling and safe disposal of those materials, said Jeff Denchfield, the company's senior director of global sustainability.

Until then, because of pending litigation, returned products are being stored near Mattel distribution centers in Southern California, Fort Worth, Texas, and New York, the company said.

So far, tests of the recalled products found lead content below the state's threshold for hazardous materials - less than 1,000 parts per million, the company said.

Even when lead-tainted products aren't considered hazardous , that doesn't mean dumping them in regular landfills is the best option, environmentalists say.

"It's best to treat them for what they are, as a material that contains a toxic chemical and needs to be handled with care," said Tom Neltner, a lawyer and chemical engineer who serves as co-chair of the Sierra Club's National Toxics Committee. "But the most important thing is to get them away from kids and to keep them away from kids."

Added Caroline Cox, research director for the Center for Environmental Health: "Lead doesn't go away, it's a metal - it doesn't break down or transform into a nontoxic substance, it stays lead. We take lead from mines and disperse it across the environment. That's not a good thing for kids or anybody else."

Abigail Goldman and Marc Lifsher write for the Los Angeles Times.

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