After Lead Recall, Changes In Toyland

Several toy companies agreed to pay a total of nearly $1.8 million last week to settle a lawsuit over lead-tainted toys made in China. The discovery last year prompted a toy recall across America and new legislation forcing toymakers to step up their safety standards.

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Talk about a marketing challenge, American toy companies are still paying the price for last year's tainted toy scare. Last week, toy giant Mattel and eight other companies agreed to pay just under $2 million to settle a lawsuit over Chinese-made toys that contained lead. This holiday season, thanks to tougher safety standards, things have changed in the toy aisle. NPR's Wendy Kaufman has the story.

WENDY KAUFMAN: Top Ten Toys in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood is one of the largest independent toy stores in the Pacific Northwest. When we visited owner Allen Rickert a year ago, he was having a hard time getting product details from many manufacturers.

Mr. ALLEN RICKERT (Owner, Top Ten Toys, Seattle, Washington): We were contacting them, trying to get information, and we'd get these hardly-readable documents faxed over to us. This year, they're sending us - a lot of them are sending us documentation in advance.

KAUFMAN: Noting where the toys are made, what's in it and what's not. Rickert picks up a small, blue wooden dog, something a toddler would pull, and shows me the label. A year ago, he says, it might have said simply, Made in China.

Mr. RICKERT: But now, it says, earth-friendly and child-safe, crafted from plantation-grown rubberwood in an eco-friendly hardwood, ethical labor, non-toxic paints, handmade with care in China. So that's a lot more labeling than you used to get.

KAUFMAN: Providing more product information for retailers and consumers about toys made here and abroad reflects the new emphasis on safety. In response to the slew of recalls in 2007, Congress turned up the heat on the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Ms. JULIE VALLESE (Director, Office of Public Affairs, Consumer Product Safety Commission): We have conducted more investigations and more inspections of those toys coming into the market than any year before to ensure that safety violations are much lower than what we saw just one year ago.

KAUFMAN: Julie Vallese of the CPSC goes on to say that far fewer toys have been recalled this year compared to last year. Legislation passed by Congress over the summer gives the CPSC more money and new authority. The law limits the total amount of lead in toys. Lead poisoning can lead to cognitive, motor, and behavioral problems in kids.

The law also bans the use of certain chemicals called phthalates that make plastic more flexible. The effects of phthalate exposure are not fully known, but some studies suggest a possible association with reproductive problems.

In addition, the legislation makes some voluntary safety standards mandatory and requires the toys be tested and certified as safe. And Joan Lawrence of the Toy Industry Association says more safety measures are on the way.

Ms. JOAN LAWRENCE (Vice President, Toy Industry Association, Inc.): They are going to check factories, for example, to make sure that they have safe practices in place. And they're going to make sure that companies, when they're designing a product, even before they produce it, that they have considered safety and checked the design of the product for safety before they take it to a factory.

KAUFMAN: But consumer advocates say not everything is rosy in toyland. A new report by a Michigan non-profit group says, while it found far fewer toys containing lead than it did last year, more than 500 of the 1,500 toys it tested this year contained what it called moderate or high levels of toxic chemicals. The Toy Industry Association challenges those findings. Back at Top Ten Toys, many shoppers say they are pleased by the new emphasis on safety, and armed with knowledge, parents like Autumn Scheele(ph) are reading labels carefully.

Ms. AUTUMN SCHEELE: This is a good example. This one is the latex-free and PVC-free and, you know, I look for that. I look for the cautions of paints that have been used on toys, and I'm a lot more cautious about not buying those items.

KAUFMAN: Americans buy about three billion toys a year. Some of them are safer now than in the past. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

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