This toy truck is one of millions of toys that were recalled last year. The truck's surface paint may contain lead levels in excess of federal standards.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Last summer, Congress passed a dramatic bit of legislation that will, among other things, more tightly restrict the amount of lead allowed in children's toys.
But the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act doesn't go into effect until Feb. 10, 2009. After large recalls of lead-tainted toys in 2007, should parents still be worried about the toys their kids are unwrapping this Christmas?
"The news is getting better," says Michael Green, the executive director of the Center for Environmental Health, a consumer watchdog group in Oakland, Calif., that is a frequent critic of the toy industry. The center's spot-checks for lead in store aisles over the past six years have helped prompt a number of the recalls of children's jewelry, toys, lunchboxes and backpacks — all contaminated with lead levels that health officials deem unsafe.
"But increasingly," Green says, "as we do follow-up studies, we're finding fewer and fewer toys and other products with lead."
The impending restrictions are already forcing big-name manufacturers to get a tighter grip on what's going into their toys, Green says. That's harder than it sounds.
Today, toys are often assembled from component parts that are manufactured by subcontractors in several countries, including places where lead is still commonly used as a stabilizer in vinyl, plastics or paint.
"It's much more complicated to know what's in the different products," Green says. "More complicated for the manufacturer, for the retailer and for the government."
As a result, some high-lead toys and other products are still sneaking through. And things could get worse before they get better, Green says, if companies try to sell off their old toy stock at deep discounts ahead of the Feb. 10 deadline.
Children younger than 3 years old are most vulnerable, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, because they're more likely to put toys in their mouths. And children living in housing built before 1978 are at special risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead accumulates in the body, and swallowing old, peeling house paint and its dust continues to be the biggest lead threat to many children.
Green says it's impossible to tell by looking whether a toy has lead. "But it's important not to create a sense of fear around this," he says.
There are some simple steps parents can take if they're worried about their child's favorite toy. The Consumer Product Safety Commission keeps an updated list on its Web site of toys that have been recalled for lead. Also, hardware stores sell inexpensive home testing kits for lead that, though not precise, can offer a good first estimate.
"If it turns bright red, then you'll know it's got lead," Green says.