California officials sue toymakers over lead

Companies welcome call to improve inspections

November 20, 2007|By Marc Lifsher and Abigail Goldman | Marc Lifsher and Abigail Goldman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- The California attorney general and the Los Angeles city attorney filed a lawsuit yesterday against Mattel Inc., Toys R Us Inc. and 18 other companies, accusing them of making or selling products that contain "unlawful quantities of lead."

The move follows major recalls of toys, lunch boxes, children's jewelry and other goods during the past year by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in Washington.

The suit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court under California's Proposition 65 law, would force manufacturers and retailers to adopt procedures for inspecting products to make sure they are safe. Barring that, they would be required to warn consumers that the items contain chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects.

Mattel, the lead defendant in the lawsuit, said it welcomes the attorney general's involvement and added that it would be helpful for the entire toy industry.

"Mattel expected this development and believes that the attorney general's assumption of this case will be beneficial to all parties," the toymaker said in a statement. "The company has been in continuous communication with the California attorney general's office since the initiation of the recalls this summer and has cooperated fully."

Proposition 65 enables the state to collect civil penalties of up to $2,500 for each of the millions of contaminated items.

"Obviously, they do not want to put on warnings. They are going to eliminate the lead or eliminate the product," said California Attorney General Jerry Brown. "But, going forward, we want to prevent these kinds of things from happening."

Brown said he expects the companies to settle the lawsuit by agreeing to "conditions such as testing or putting independent monitors in foreign countries."

Those measures would ensure that products contain no lead or other harmful chemicals when they are shipped from factories.

Lead paint has been barred in the United States since 1978 because of lead's link to brain and neurological problems, particularly in children. Toys are recalled every year for containing lead levels that exceed the legal standard of 600 parts per million. But this year's recalls hit consumers particularly hard, in part because they involved a series of well-known toys.

In June, toy maker RC2 Corp., one of the defendants in Brown's lawsuit, recalled 1.5 million of its wildly popular Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway sets.

Mattel followed in August with a series of recalls of more than 2 million toy cars, trains, shape-sorters and Barbie doll accessories. Its Fisher-Price unit also pulled Sesame Street-themed products from a line of infant and preschool toys.

Environmental activists said they were glad to see Brown and Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo join the fray.

"We have the same goals for the toy companies to clean up their acts," said Charles Margulis, a spokesman for the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland. Consumers would be better protected by having more government oversight "as opposed to the voluntary testing," he said.

Last summer, many retailers announced a series of procedures designed to reassure the public about the safety of their products.

Mattel, the country's biggest toy company, announced its most stringent testing ever, including batch-testing every toy it produces.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Toys R Us and Walt Disney Co. announced expanded oversight, including, in some cases, independent third-party product safety reviews.

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

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