Mocha Moms: What's on the Table?
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up: You know the saying, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Our Money Coach is standing by to shake you by the shoulders to keep you away from the next big profit scheme.
But first, our weekly check in with the Mocha Moms. We turn to them every week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. This time, what about the toys? Just last week, JC Penny joined the list of retailers sending out a recall of toys imported from China - 90,000 toys in this instance said to be covered in lead paint. Lead can be toxic if it's ingested by young children. So why these recalls? Why now? And what can parents do to make sure the kids are safe? Let's talk to our moms Jolene Ivey and Asra Nomani.
Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Co-founder, Mocha Moms): Hey, Michel.
Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Member, Mocha Moms): Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: And today, we're also joined by Donald Mays. He's the senior director of product safety planning at Consumers Union. It's a nonprofit that provides consumer information.
Mr. Mays, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. DONALD MAYS (Senior Director, Product Safety Planning and Technical Administration, Consumers Union): Well, thank you. Nice to be with you.
MARTIN: Well, could you put this into context for us? I mean, 90,000 toys seems like a lot of toys, and it's one of - I don't know - three or four of these big bulk recalls. Why is this happening now? Have standards changed?
Mr. MAYS: No, standards haven't changed since 1978. The lead paint on toys has been banned since that time, but the hazards associated with lead has been known for many, many years. In fact, the very first issue of Consumer Reports magazine published in 1936 detailed the hazards of lead and looked at, in fact, children's toys for lead hazards.
And here we are now 71 years later, and we're still dealing with these kind of problems. There is a gaping hole in the safety net that we have in this country that would prevent unsafe products from coming in onto our store shelves.
MARTIN: What's that gaping hole?
Mr. MAYS: Well, part of that has to do with our government watchdog agencies. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is the agency that's responsible for the safety of toys and 15,000 other types of products. That agency is woefully underfunded and understaffed, and just simply do not have the resources to be able to protect consumers from unsafe goods coming into this country. They have a budget of only 60 - a little over $63 million, which is about half of what they started with when the organization was first formed.
And they have a staff of now a record low of only 400 people. Fifteen of those people are assigned to working the docks, meaning, you know, they work at the ports trying to screen up the bad products from coming in. Now, we've got a little over 300 ports in this country. Fifteen people can't cover them all here.
MARTIN: Why does anybody still use lead paint in a product for small children anywhere?
Mr. MAYS: Well, that's a really good question. Lead paint is a little bit cheaper with particular colors such as red and yellows. It also dries a little bit quicker, so that means you can package the toy more quickly than if you use other types of agents used for pigmenting. What's been happening here is that the manufacturing of toys is almost all moved over to China. Now, 80 percent of the toys that are on the American market are manufactured in China.
And what's going on in China is some unscrupulous business practices. Earlier this summer, we heard about this huge recall of Mattel and Fisher-Price toys, and it had to do with, again, lead paint. The factories that Mattel is using to produce those toys were supposedly checking to make sure that no lead paint was used. But, in fact, the suppliers were sending them paint labeled as lead-free, but, in fact, it contained lead.
MARTIN: Jolene, I know your kids are beyond the putting the toys in their mouth stage, but with five boys, you've surely bought a lot of toys in your time. Does this still bother you? Is this still a source of concern for you, and how - who are you mad at in this story?
Ms. IVEY: Well, I don't know. I have a couple of thoughts on this. Number one, I think parents need to buy fewer toys. I think that if we all just got a bunch of cardboard boxes, some duct tape, some pots and spoons, we'd all be better off. I hate to see all of the toys that still clutter my house that my kids don't play with anymore, the pieces are broken, we just need to throw it out and start over.
And I am as guilty as the next parent. I think parents need to be more informed. I'm certainly woefully uninformed on this subject in a lot of ways. I mean, when we were talking about doing this show, I went online, I did a little research, and I saw the issue about magnets and toys and how dangerous it is to have a magnet if the kid aspirates it or ingests it in some way. It's one thing to have one magnet in your body, but to have two magnets in you, all of sudden, they can join together and the child can die. And that just really freaked me out.
MARTIN: Asra, what are you going to say?
Ms. NOMANI: Well, I got to be honest. I'm definitely from the slacker-mom school of parenting. I didn't pay attention to a single one of these headlines because I was too freaked out to even think of figuring out which one of these toys I could possibly have in our playroom that were recalled. So I'm very sorry that, like, our toy cops equal, probably, you know, half of the staff at the Toys "R" Us on one shift, I mean, basically, if you think about 15 cops on the docks.
And so, basically, moms like us have to be the cops, and I don't feel like I'm qualified for the job. I don't want the job. And I completely agree that we've got too many toys. I mean, my boy wakes up in the morning and he says, is this the day we get to buy a toy? I mean, it's such a consumer industry now, and I know that our policing of the industry cannot be in proportion to the rise of growth in sales in the industry.
MARTIN: It's true. I have a question about this, though, for Mr. Mays, which is that we are very fortunate in that there are a lot of kids in our neighborhood who are the same age as my - or just a little older, which is perfect, because then you get the stuff that they don't play for anymore, that the parents are like sick of and want out of their house. And, you know, we've gotten some wonderful hand-me-over presents from friends. And, you know, a train set was one of them. And I don't know how far back I should be thinking about these things. You know, it's one thing when you just buy these things, you know, they'll tell you what the little code is on the bottom.
In fact, some of the toy stores - particularly the independent toy stores -have been very good about posting, you know, what the identifiers are so that you can figure out which toys you need to send back if you bought them. But what if you've been given them? How far back, Mr. Mays, should you be thinking about toys to figure out whether they might be dangerous?
Mr. MAYS: What you're highlighting here is the very problem with relying on recall systems to make sure that the market and homes are safe. Recalls are certainly a reactive process for dealing with product safety. What we need is a far more proactive measure to make sure that toys are safe before they even get to the market. But once they're there and once they are in a consumer's homes, it's very hard to get them away from consumers that might be as high at highest risk. Now you are absolutely right. It's great when stores post, you know, the information about the recalls, but you need to figure out exactly if the product that you have is affected.
These millions of Fisher-Price toys that were recalled earlier this summer, it was very hard to detect if, in fact, you had the right one. In fact, I was going through some in my sister's house. I had to use a magnifying glass to see if the code was right. Well, if people aren't as diligent as my sister…
Ms. NOMANI: Trust me, I don't go through the toy box with the magnifying glass.
MARTIN: Actually we're wondering if you all come over our house if that's…
Ms. IVEY: Are you free this weekend?
MARTIN: Yeah, right. Can I say - can we ask your wife if you can come over and go to our - but anyway, go ahead.
Mr. MAYS: But if people even don't get the word about recalls, there's no way to take unsafe toys away, and that's the problem. People aren't watching the news at the right time and the right place or reading the right newspaper or listening to NPR when recall information is announced, well, you know, they're not going to get that information.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking with the Mocha Moms and our invited expert, Donald Mays from Consumers Union about this whole issue around toy recalls.
Asra, what were you going to say?
Ms. NOMANI: I'm just so confused by all of this, and I can't believe that I'm alone. I don't read any of the material. I walked right by the recall sign at the store. I blocked it all out, because it's just too much information. And I also wonder how it is that generations have survived and yet we are so vigilant now. I know the risks are out there, but I don't know how to - how you all can reach parents like myself.
MARTIN: Asra, if you start, though, with this question, like, something, like, Easy-Bake Ovens. Those have been recalled. But people grew up on eating those bad, nasty chocolate pies. We all - I bet everybody at this table had an Easy-Bake Oven.
Ms. IVEY: Right.
MARTIN: How did we survive? I - you know?
Mr. MAYS: Well, quite frankly, there are still a tremendous number of injuries and fatalities associated with consumer products every year. So the marketplace certainly is probably safer than when I grew up as a boy. Of course, I spent a lot of time in emergency rooms, too, and so…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. IVEY: But you survived.
Mr. MAYS: But I did survive.
MARTIN: We're trying to lift the level up. It's not what we're aiming for here, okay?
Ms. NOMANI: Survival.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MAYS: My mother wonders how. But, nevertheless, I think that it's really important for people to arm themselves with information nowadays, because I do think that the safety of imports is highly in question right now. And one of the things that you can do - at least to get informed about products that have been recalled - is to sign up on the CPSC's e-mail list. It's an automatic notification that when a product gets recalled, they'll send a message to your e-mail system. You can get to that, actually, if you go to www.recalls.gov, and it will tell you what products have been recalled. So if you do have those products in your home, then you can, you know, take the corrective action that's specified in the recall notice.
MARTIN: Finally, Mr. Mays, we're heading into the big toy-buying season for a lot of people. What advice do you have for us?
Mr. MAYS: We believe that you are at less risk if you buy well-known brands of toys from major retailers. That doesn't mean that you're not at any risk, because, as they said, Mattel and Fisher-Price toys have been recalled. The Hasbro Easy-Bake Oven was recalled. But we think that you are at higher risk if you buy your products and your toys from dollar stores, because those stores have a tendency not to test or inspect the products that they carry on their shelves as thoroughly as the big retailers.
The other thing is to sign up for recalls. Make sure that you're on an automatic notification system provided by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And there's also a way of testing your own toys for lead hazards with do-it-yourself test kits. Now Consumer Reports is going to be coming out with a report on that in our December issue, where we've tested various test kits.
MARTIN: The offer stands for you to come here and go through our toy box. We'll cook you dinner.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Donald Mays from Consumers Union joined us by phone from New York. It's a nonprofit consumer information organization. And we're also joined here in the studio, as always, Jolene Ivey and Asra Nomani, here in our studios in Washington - the Mocha Moms. Thank you, ladies, so much for joining us.
Ms. IVEY: Thanks, Michel.
Ms. NOMANI: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: And thank you, Mr. Mays.
Mr. MAYS: Well, thank you.
MARTIN: You can find out more about the Mocha Moms and Consumers Union on our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.