Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images
Ceilene Gonzalez, 6, carries a bag with toys as she shops with her mother at the Toys "R" Us in New York's Times Square, Nov. 23, 2007.
Ceilene Gonzalez, 6, carries a bag with toys as she shops with her mother at the Toys "R" Us in New York's Times Square, Nov. 23, 2007. Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images
Parents Look for Alternatives
A wave of recalls for Chinese-made toys for lead and other health hazards has parents concerned this holiday season. A recent poll shows nearly half of consumers say they plan to avoid buying toys made in China this year. But the alternatives are often more expensive.
Testing Toys for Lead
Dozens of toys contaminated with lead have been recalled over the past year, so it's not a surprise that parents want to know whether their holiday toys are tainted. Sales of do-it-yourself lead test kits are up, but how effective are they?
More than 20 million toys — most of them made in China — were recalled this year, many because of lead paint, or small parts that could be swallowed. Those recalls have sent toymakers and sellers scrambling to remove potentially dangerous toys from the market and assure holiday shoppers.
At Top Ten Toys in Seattle, one of the largest independent toy stores in the Northwest, the recalls have prompted store owner Alan Rickert and his staff to pay extra attention to where toys are made and what they are made from. Much of that information is now available to shoppers in a big, white binder. It's full of toymakers' letters assuring retailers and consumers that their products are safe.
That's a new trend that suggests many companies now view toy safety as something they must attend to — even something that could give them a competitive advantage, Rickert says.
Overall, 50 percent more toys were recalled this year than last. The Consumer Product Safety Commission cites two deaths related to choking on a screw from a kids' tool bench. The agency says it knows of no deaths or injuries related to lead paint in toys.
Pressure for safer toys is coming from many directions. Julie Vallese, spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, notes that there's more scrutiny now than in the past.
"The CPSC has done more investigation, but industry has done more as well," she says. "It's their obligation to make sure the products they bring into the U.S. meet safety standards."
Mattel, the giant toymaker, says it has increased oversight of suppliers, including increased testing and unannounced inspections.
On the retail side, the two biggest toy sellers, Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us, say they have beefed up accountability, inspections and testing from their suppliers.
"In the past, for example, it was probably more common to test as the first toys rolled off the line and then go back and test periodically," says Jerry Storch, the chief executive officer of Toys "R" Us. "What we are now requiring, and what we believe many [toy manufacturers] have moved to on their own, is that every batch of every product be tested."
Despite all these efforts, many toys containing toxic chemicals are still on the shelves. This week, a coalition of environmental health groups released results showing substantial amounts of lead in roughly one of every six toys tested.
Toy safety advocates and many in the toy industry are pushing for tougher standards, and they say the Consumer Product Safety Commission needs additional authority and funding. Congressional legislation to beef up the agency could be passed by the end of the year.