JACKI LYDEN, host:
Let's turn now to an industry that's going strong in a weak economy: independent testing labs. Manufacturers hire them to make sure that products meet all government regulations, and they test everything from water to circuit boards to the part of their business that's really booming: toys.
NPR's Jenny Gold paid a visit, carrying a few of her favorite playthings.
JENNY GOLD: With his shaved head and wireless frames, Gaylon Morris looks a little hip for the office park outside Baltimore, where he works. He has a liberal arts degree in history, but after a stint in the Navy working as a nuclear power plant operator, he found the testing industry.
Mr. GAYLON MORRIS (General Manager, Trace Laboratories): It's an industry that I never knew existed. Between FCC certifications and FDA certifications and all the different regulatory agencies in the world that look at things, the average consumer has no idea. It's all behind the scenes, and it's pretty interesting.
GOLD: Morris is general manager of Trace Laboratories, a certified, independent testing lab in Hunt Valley, Maryland. They also have labs in Illinois and Shanghai, China.
For the past few years, Trace has mostly been testing chemical levels in drinking water, and looking for faults in electric circuitry. But Morris says recently, they've been adapting to meet the needs of a new client: toymakers.
A new federal law requires toymakers to have their products tested for lead and phthalates. To find out how the tests work, I brought a few of my own toys to the lab.
Mr. KEITH SELLERS (Senior Scientist, Trace Laboratories): This is our handheld XRF analyzer.
GOLD: The company's senior scientist, Keith Sellers, pulls out a plastic tool that looks like a hot-glue gun.
Mr. SELLERS: A hot-glue gun on steroids, yes. You know, it looks like something out of Star Trek.
GOLD: Sellers grabs my pink doll and takes aim.
Mr. SELLERS: I'm shooting on the eyeball. All we have to do is pull the trigger and hold on.
GOLD: Within about a minute, he'll have a good idea of how much lead is in the doll.
Here's how it works. The gun bombards the doll with a powerful X-ray beam, exciting the electrons inside. Those electrons emit energy back out at a particular wavelength. The gun then analyzes the wavelength and the intensity of the energy to figure out exactly how much of a regulated chemical like lead is present.
Mr. SELLERS: It seems your little dolly here is clean.
GOLD: Next, a more sophisticated analysis. But first, technical director Steve Keller seems to relish prying apart my 99-cent Matchbox car.
Mr. STEVE KELLER (Technical Director, Trace Laboratories): We get to break them, smash them, grind them up. Oh, yeah, that's always fun, too.
GOLD: Then he reaches for my plastic horse.
Wait, hold on. You're about to amputate the leg off of my little toy horse.
Mr. KELLER: I can pick an ear, if you'd rather do an ear, or part of the tail, whatever. Well, I'll stop there.
GOLD: They take those tiny pieces, weigh them carefully, throw in some acid, and pop them in a special microwave. The goal here is to turn the solid toys into liquid. One hour later, they have liquid horse.
Unidentified Man #3: That's liquid horse.
Unidentified Man #4: Liquid horse leg.
GOLD: Now, the hoof is ready for a final analysis by a carefully calibrated machine about the size of a mini-fridge. They hook up the beaker, and the liquid hoof is slowly pumped up into the machine.
This test is a lot more accurate than the quick scan by the gun, good enough to satisfy toymakers and the government that the lead level of my horse is far below the federal requirement.
Total cost for testing my horse: about $250.
Mr. MORRIS: It is amazing how many people contact us. In the time that we've been sitting here talking, I've had four different contacts, people looking for either phthalates or lead, or some other metal in a toy or children's product.
GOLD: Testing might be a windfall for Trace, but at $250 a model, it can add up pretty quickly for toymakers.
Mr. JAMIE SEELEY KREISMAN (Owner, Manager, Beka Inc.): My name is Jamie Seeley Kreisman, and I am one of the owners and managers of a small toy company called Beka Incorporated in St. Paul, Minnesota.
GOLD: Kreisman started Beka in 1973, mostly making wooden toys like blocks and train sets. He says Beka toys have always been made with a low lead content, but now they have to pay to prove it, testing every type of toy they make. The total bill comes in at $30,000 a year.
Mr. KREISMAN: For us, that's very likely going to be the difference between being profitable and not being profitable
GOLD: Especially in a recession. But Kreisman says the government could dish out a $100,000 fine if he fails to certify that his toys meet the new lead and phthalate limits
So, spending $30,000 is worth it to him. And with those kinds of customers, Trace Labs expects to turn a strong profit this year. Jenny Gold, NPR News.
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