Aqua Dots Recall Challenges Consumer Safety in the U.S.
(Soundbite of music)
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is "Tell Me More" from NPR News.
Later in the program, we'll visit with award-winning filmmaker Mira Nair about her latest project, fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS through the movies. That's in a few minutes.
But first, there was an announcement yesterday of another massive recall of toys made in China. This time because they're coated with a chemical that, if swallowed, can change into GHB, the so-called date rape drug. Five children have been hospitalized after swallowing the toy called Aqua Dots. And on the same day, a separate recall was announced for more than 400,000 other toys from China, mostly toy cars, because of dangerous levels of lead.
Parents around the world are rightly concerned about the safety of products that they're buying for their children. But Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Loretta Tofani says there's another side of the story, the safety of the factories where these products are being made. She says it's not just the products that are dangerous but the working conditions.
She joins us now to tell us about her story along with Wall Street Journal writer Christopher Conkey. He'll tell us more about the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That's the federal agency responsible for monitoring the safety of products coming in to the American market. They're both with me here in the studio.
Thank you both so much for coming in.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER CONKEY (Writer, Wall Street Journal): Thanks for having me here.
Ms. LORETTA TOFANI (American journalist, 1983 Pulitzer Prize Winner): Thank you.
MARTIN: Christopher, I'd like to start with you. Why are these recalls happening now? Why are there so many of them? It would seem that many of these products had been on the market for quite some time.
Mr. CONKEY: Recalls of lead-tainted toy products have been going on for a while. I think we're seeing so many this year because attention is really focusing on this issue, and I think that companies - when you see a company like Mattel, which is a giant toy maker, recalling everyday common products: Winnie the Pooh, spinning tops, Barbie dolls, Batman toys - things that kids around the country play with every day. And they took a lot of heat in Congress and from the CPSC on this issue.
And when you see company like that coming out and making the admissions it's made, I think it's opened the gates a little bit for other companies to sort of - have a reckoning with their lead problems. And so I think, we're just in a period where you're getting a torrent of companies saying, okay, we, too, I have toys that are violating this lead-paint standard. Let's get them recalled. Let's start dealing with the problem.
MARTIN: So the companies themselves are the ones who are essentially blowing the whistle on themselves. They're discovering their problem and they are disclosing it voluntarily?
Mr. CONKEY: Absolutely. But the - I think that's something that consumers have to understand that the product safety system, at least, for our consumer products, things that aren't sued - drugs, cigarettes, guns, that stuff - the CPSC looks at entirely depends upon the cooperative voluntary process, where businesses get reports of defective products or injuries, hazards, you know, that are being caused by their products, and they then immediately report that information to the CPSC.
And then a little bit of a negotiation goes on between the CPSC and the businesses themselves as to whether this really warrants a recall or whether it - you know, just warrants further monitoring, and so - but, yeah, the whole system depends upon businesses, you know, being willing to share that information with the government.
MARTIN: And Congress is now looking into beefing up the CPSC. What are they proposing to do and why?
Mr. CONKEY: Yeah, the - I think Congress has really woken up to the reality that this system, at least, in the eyes of many Democrats, who are leaders on the Hill now, view this as too friendly to businesses. It really puts the onus too much on them and they wanted…
MARTIN: To voluntarily disclose problems if they indeed had discovered them.
Mr. CONKEY: Right. They want a tougher regulator. They want a regulator that is going to go after companies that hem and haw little bit about sharing information. So what you're seeing this year is - the leading proposals in the House and Senate would inject millions more dollars into the CPSC over the next five or six years. It would enable it to bring on more scientists, testers. It would up its staff by hundreds of people. And it would really dive into that process by which companies negotiate with the CPSC with what the aim of making the CPSC more powerful, letting it get information unto the public quicker and letting it penalize companies a lot more if they don't report on time.
MARTIN: I'd like to hear more about the bill in just a couple of minutes. I'm going to ask you to stay with us.
But Loretta, I want to go to you. You tackled the other side of the story, the safety of the workers making these products. You first reported this in series published in the Salt Lake Tribune last month. It's now available on the Web, and we'll have a link to it on our side. But what got you interested on that side of the story?
Ms. TOFANI: You know, Michel, when I moved to Utah in late - late in 2002, it was the first time in my adult life that I was not employed as a staff writer. And it was very depressing to me to be without a job, so I started…
MARTIN: I just should say distinguished stints at the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer. You're a very well-known investigative reporter. But…
Ms. TOFANI: So I decided to start a business, and I opened a store in Salt Lake City. And I went to China to - basically, I was bringing in Chinese ethnic furniture, which I thought was beautiful and reminded me of my four-year stint as a foreign correspondent in China.
So that brought me to the factories in China. And there was a time - well, I started noticing that a lot of the carpenters were missing fingers, but I didn't really pay attention at first. And then at one point, I went into - I decided that maybe someday, I'd want to expand into American furniture. So I went into a factory that where American-style furniture was being made, and I was astonished there were men who were spraying an oil-based paint, which I knew contained lead, just out into the open air. I mean, it was - they were using hoses, and they were spraying furniture that was going to go to the United States. And yes, they did have masks, but they were little hospital masks. And so I…
MARTIN: There weren't respirators. There was no ventilation system as you would see…
Ms. TOFANI: Exactly.
MARTIN: …even in a shoe repair shop in United States.
TOFANI: Exactly. Exactly. No ventilation system, no spray booth to control the fumes. So I myself was getting those fumes and my throat was constricted, and I couldn't imagine how - but they were working 11 hours a day in that environment, and you know, in China, they work six to seven days a week. And so I knew that - you know, those people were certainly susceptible to lung cancer and other cancers. And then, I, kind of, lost - I started to lose interest in my business. I felt like I wanted to find out more about their factories, and so I started going to other factories. You know, in…
MARTIN: But let me ask you this. You had been a foreign correspondent, as you said, for four years in Beijing. Have you never had access to these factories before?
Ms. TOFANI: Never. I…
MARTIN: It was only because you were a business owner that you were able to get inside initially.
Ms. TOFANI: Exactly. I - you know, as a - as a reporter based - accredited and based in Beijing, I did get into a few factories. But, you know, looking back, I think, they were very - I was accompanied by officials, and I think these were the, you know, kind of, better ones, and - or else, they were dressed up for my visit. And the only issue at hand was - you know, how many hours were the people being paid and how much were they - you know, how much were they earning per hour.
But this, as a business owner, I saw a completely different kind of factory, and it was - and I realized that the real issue here is that people are dying while our - they are going to die for making products for America, and it wasn't just furniture. It was for - I went to a lot of factories. Once I realized what was going on, I went to toy factories, shoe factories, factories where metal was being made. And I went to a lot of them in every category.
MARTIN: What's the scope of the problem? How many workers would you say are affected by occupational injuries or illnesses? And, of course, that you are recognizing, of course, that this is, you know, state-controlled media, and O would assume that their own statistics perhaps are difficult to come by. But what do you think is the scope of the problem based on your reporting?
Ms. TOFANI: Well, the Ministry of Health actually said out of a - in a occupational disease conference, that 200 million of 700 million workers are routinely exposed to carcinogens and other toxins during the course of their work. And you said that they worked in 16 million enterprises, factories all around China.
So these are official numbers. They may be correct, they may be low. But at any rate, the - you know, it means - so it means that more than a quarter of the people who are working - more than a quarter of the labor force is exposed to carcinogens routinely in the course of their work.
MARTIN: Are there worker safety laws in China?
Ms. TOFANI: Yeah, there are. Actually, there was a very good worker safety law passed in 2002, and they - but it's not enforced. And, you know, for a variety of reasons, the biggest of which is that the overriding concern of the provincial and central government is to increase GDP and to, you know, have economic prosperity and employment and all of those good things.
MARTIN: So there were - the law - there are laws on the books, but they're not enforced by the authorities and not taken seriously?
Ms. TOFANI: Exactly. And so, Chinese workers are really paying the real price of our cheap goods.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We're talking to Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Loretta Tofani and Christopher Conkey of the Wall Street Journal about dangerous conditions in Chinese factories and dangerous products showing up on American store shelves.
Christopher, I want to ask you, given that - you're saying that the way the consumer product safety system actually works in this country is for companies to voluntarily self report, does that mean that business owners, as Loretta was at one point, are they going to these factories doing it of the kind of inspections that she was doing? So presumably, would they be in a position to be aware of the conditions she describes?
Mr. CONKEY: Ideally. And I think it varies by company. When the CEO of Mattel has been in D.C. a few times this year to answer about this company's practices, I think he had said he had not even been - hadn't really been go to China. And so, you know, so much of their production takes place over there. It had, you know - it has to take place either somehow within the company. But often, you're getting - it's not like the (unintelligible) Mattel is over there making its toys. It has subcontractors that have subcontractors that have subcontractors.
And so that's been one of the real revelations in this whole process is that the trail is very fussy. It's hard to get back to what worker is actually spraying the paint on those toys and where that paint is coming from.
MARTIN: Oh, is that what you found, Loretta, also that these companies - the entities that manufacture the goods are not actually owned by or run by…
Ms. TOFANI: That's exactly right.
MARTIN: …the America companies that they serve us.
Ms. TOFANI: That's exactly right. And it's formed out to many, many different factories.
MARTIN: Now the CPSC, Christopher, is missing a commissioner as I understand it. What affect does that have on their workload?
Mr. CONKEY: It has a crippling affect. They've been - it's a three-member commissioner - three commissioners. And since, I believe, July of 2006 when the last chairman stepped down, there have only been two: one Democrat and one Republican. And the Republican Nancy Nord has been the acting chairman since then.
The problem is that two people doesn't give you a quorum by the commissions rule so they can't do many of their very important functions like penalizing companies who don't report violations in time or even making mandatory rules. So basically, the commission couldn't do anything for much of this year until Congress stepped in early this year and just gave them a temporary extension that allowed them to act as if they had three commissioners. So…
MARTIN: And it's my understanding of the chairman of the commission, so far, is actually opposing some of the increased budgets that Congress is proposing and increased authority that Congress is proposing for the agents. It gets a little unusual, isn't it…
Mr. CONKEY: Yeah.
MARTIN: …for a - an agency heads not want more money and more authority?
Mr. CONKEY: I don't think it's unusual for a Republican agency had to oppose elements of a Democratic bill.
Mr. CONKEY: I mean I think that's politics. But when you consider how weak in the CPSC is, it has about 400 employees right now. One time in the 1980s, they had over 1,000. Its budget authority has gone nowhere. It's basically even threading water. Morale is very low. They've been losing some very good workers.
And so for the chairman to come before Congress, as she did earlier this year, and be a little bit indecisive about whether the agency even needs more resources, I think really, really added to the problem from, you know, Congress' point of view.
MARTIN: Loretta, how did you see this? Now, I assume you've closed your business now as a result - and is that because you couldn't tolerate the conditions that you saw, you just felt you ethically couldn't continue?
Ms. TOFANI: That was it. It was - and also I really lost in - I've lost interest in it. I became obsessed with feeling that I wanted to really document what was going on and get - and talk to the workers, get their medical records, get the import documents to show that the factories were exporting to the United States. And it was really hard for me to focus on the business.
MARTIN: What kind of questions do you (unintelligible) briefly, if you would. What do you think is the major issue for Chinese workers? Is it the safety of the equipment or is it more that they're exposed to toxic substances? And are there ethical ways that American business owners - if they are concerned about this condition, is there a way that they could be more effective in changing that conditions? Was that really an issue for the Chinese government?
Ms. TOFANI: No. I think - it seems that American business owners themselves realize that they could be more effective. And, you know, they could refuse to use such factories. They - or they could say, okay, we're not going to do it in this way. I will buy the spray boxes for you, or we need to put in a ventilation system. They need, maybe, a greater commitment.
MARTIN: But these are contractors. Do they really have any authority to enforce the conditions that contractors are utilizing?
Ms. TOFANI: Probably not, although they, of course, could say that they don't want to do business with them.
MARTIN: They could utilize other places, let's say, if you implement best practices (unintelligible). But if they were to do that - you're saying given the scope of the problem, that was really half a major impact on, would it?
Ms. TOFANI: It would. And it's - right now, it's hard for me to imagine it because there - it's so normal for factories to operate like this. So I think it would take some, you know, an enormous investment perhaps on the part of Chinese government or U.S. companies coming together and saying, okay, we're going to outfit you just like we would have to if you were in the Unite States under OSHAWA regulations, you know? And it would cost a tremendous amount of money and it would raise the prices of our goods, but it would protect Chinese workers.
MARTIN: Christopher, final question to you. What's the status of this bill? I mean it is an election year and, as you pointed out, you know, you've got a Republican administration, a Democratic-controlled Congress, there's difference of opinion, there's difference of philosophy about the way the agency should operate. So realistically, is there any likely that this bill is actually going to pass this year? Or is this really more just a symbolic gesture to tell the public that the Congress is involved and interested?
Mr. CONKEY: Oh, I think so. I think there's a real good chance we'll see something this year. The House has already passed a bill and the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of the CPSC, has also marked up their bill. So, really, as soon as the Senate - as soon as that bill comes to the Senate floor and gets passed, then we'll go into conference, and we'll see what gets hashed out.
Meanwhile, the House has come back with another bill that would kind of match what the senators doing right now. So when you have both House that moving forward like this and you have such a public out-roar and we're getting into the holiday season, where buying toy just going to be, you know, really big in the news again. So I think there's a real good chance. Obviously, there's hurdles with everything else going on in D.C. right now. They haven't even passed a lot of the major spending bills, which is business number one. So it's hard to say whether they will for sure, but the momentum is really there right now.
MARTIN: And very briefly, the administration - has the president given any indication on whether he'd sign such a bill?
Mr. CONKEY: No indication yet. But the president did just come out - or he has a task force that just came out with its own import safety plan right now, which is basically an acknowledgement that, okay, we want to get something done soon too.
MARTIN: All right. Christopher Conkey is a reporter with the Wall Street Journal based here in Washington. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Loretta Tofani is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake, Utah. You can try to link to Loretta's series on Chinese factories at npr.org/tellmemore.
Thank you both so much for coming in today.
Mr. CONKEY: Thanks, Michel.
Ms. TOFANI: Thank you, Michel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.