Dangerous toy recalls have predominated the news lately. From magnets that can cause severe intestinal damage or death if swallowed to lead-based paints, mass marketed children’s toys made in China are not fit for our youngest population or the workers who make them. The most recent massive recalls have come from major toy companies, such as Mattel (maker of Barbie, Batman, Dora, etc.) and RC2 (maker of Thomas the Tank Engine).
Information that lead is harmful to our health is not new; however, toy companies act like these "accidents" occur innocently. In fact, we have known about the harmful effects of lead since 100 BC! Once lead enters the body, it travels to the soft tissues and organs. After several weeks, this poisonous metal begins to store in the body’s teeth and bones. Lead is especially harmful for children under six years of age, as "about 99% of the lead taken into the body of an adult will leave in the waste (urine, feces, hair/nail growth and sweat), but only about 32% will be eliminated from a child’s body," according to the Kentucky Department for Public Health. The harmful effects of lead exposure can cause learning disabilities to coma to death, depending on the amount and duration of exposure.
Small, strong magnetic toys are the source of other major, recent recalls. When children swallow more than one of these magnets, severe intestinal damage occurs, and it is often difficult to diagnose. In fact, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) lists magnets at the #1 hidden home hazard. They warn,
Since 2005: 1 Death, 86 Injuries; 8 million magnetic toys recalled. Today’s rare-earth magnets can be very small and powerful making them popular in toys, building sets, and jewelry…If two or more magnets, or a magnet and another metal object are swallowed separately, they can attract to one another through intestinal walls and get trapped in place…but magnets can attract in the body and twist or pinch the intestines, causing holes, blockages, infection, and death, if not treated properly and promptly.
The CPSC is the government agency responsible for protecting consumers from unsafe products. "Anytime a company brings a banned hazardous product into the U.S. marketplace, especially one intended for children, it is unacceptable," said Nancy Nord, acting chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Ensuring that Chinese-made toys are safe for U.S. consumers is one of my highest priorities and is the subject of vital talks currently in place between CPSC and the Chinese government…There is no excuse for lead to be found in toys entering this country,"
Nord said. "It’s totally unacceptable and it needs to stop." This statement is ironic, given the CPSC’s failure to act when lead was found in baby bibs, car seats, jewelry, and children’s lunchboxes. Furthermore, the president of Mattel has stated that families should expect more recalls as further product testing occurs. Shouldn’t this testing occur before products are sold to families? More irony is found with RC2’s slogan, "compelling passionate parenting and play for all ages." Yes, compassionate parents give their children toys with lead paint on them.
The recall of Thomas the Tank Engine toys, as well as other recent recalls, reminds us that our children will never be safe until children are safe globally from harmful products in their toys. An opinion article in the New York Times by Christian Warren speaks to this issue. "The Little Engine That Could Poison" reminds us that the important lessons to be learned from these recalls is not only about the protection our own children, but "regulating environmental poisons in the global economy".
With the majority of products consumers purchase being manufactured overseas, the incidence of "accidental" contamination will continue. As Warren writes,
It is important to do what we can to prevent the import of dangerous toys. But it is at least as important to help our international partners curtail the use of lead and other toxic substances in their own markets. Lax product safety and environmental regulation overseas undoubtedly lowers manufacturing costs there, but it also perpetuates the risk to our children and guarantees harmful exposure to both workers and children in countries that continue using lead as blithely as we once did."
Lead is very dangerous stuff that causes irreversible damage in humans. No family anywhere in the world should have to suffer from the effects of this known poison, especially in an effort to produce cheap products for the world market. As a world power, we need to do something to extinguish this hazard globally. We have some protection in this country, despite President Bush slashing of the Consumer Product Safety Commission budget by 10%, yet our children are still exposed to lead in their toys. Who knows how many children throughout the world play with lead tainted toys?
Green alternatives do exist for families. Reputable companies, such as Plan Toys, provide consumer confidence and greener practices. Handmade toys, such as Waldorf doll making kits, allow parents to know exactly what their children’s toys are made of and how they are constructed. Real Toys from Melbourne creates charming gifts for children from recycled and/or salvaged materials. Here is Real Toys bio from Etsy:
So many of the toys available today are mass produced, plastic, commercialised and increasingly associated with TV, movies or computer games. As I work with children, I wanted to make toys that would be developmentally stimulating, simple, high quality and lovable– the way Real Toys should be. (And they are so cute!) Each Real Toy is an original design, individually handmade and stuffed. Features are carefully chosen at the last stage to bring out the unique personality of every one. As they are crafted individually, each Real Toy is one of a kind.
Parents should proceed with caution when purchasing toys made in China. The recent recalls demonstrate that our global economy can have devastating effects on children throughout the world. Natural toys may cost more money, but there is no price for safety and the blessings of health. Although natural toys are sometimes recalled, the incidence of such recalls does not compare to the recent problems plaguing major toy manufacturers.
I won’t argue that quality control should check these things before the toys are released for sale–but I’m not 100% convinced that such checks aren’t taking place. I checked my son’s recalled Thomas wooden railway toys with home lead tests, and the tests were negative. Then I checked a test on a photo frame I knew contained lead, and the test was positive–so it did work. Also, the majority of the Thomas Wooden Railway toys are recommended for ages three and up, so it’s unlikely (though clearly not impossible) that kids of the recommended ages are going to be, say, teething on them.
Lead shouldn’t be present in toys, and natural toys are great. But I think it’s a bit harsh to suggest that the manufacturers are wantonly endangering our children’s lives and health. As far as I know, no kids have actually been damaged by the products that have been recalled, and at least one company executive committed suicide because of the situation.
It’s awful, it shouldn’t happen, but they’re coming clean and hopefully preventing damage. Maybe this scare will lead big companies to produce safer toys in the future.
That stuffed elephant is darned cute, though.