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On the shelves of many discount toy stores, you can find products containing lead. Children's health advocates say that some of the toys have dangerously high levels, despite a new federal law to protect children.
Oanh Ha of member station KQED in San Francisco reports.
(Soundbite of child playing)
OANH HA: When 3-year-old David Blair was still in his crib, he loved to suck on vinyl cubes from the Baby Einstein company, the kind that are supposed to help kids get smarter. His parents, Kim and Raymond, didn't think much of it until tests showed lead concentrations in his blood were double what doctors consider a tolerable range. Lead can cause serious harm to a child's brain development.
Ms. KIM BLAIR: We were mortified...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BLAIR: ...scared and feeling like - that maybe we were bad parents, and we weren't taking care of our child well enough.
HA: Tests of soil, paint and drinking water from their San Francisco Bay area home came back negative for lead. The only item that tested positive was the Baby Einstein cube. In fact, it turned out to be on the federal toy recall list because of its high lead content.
David's father, Raymond Blair, doesn't think the government is doing enough to protect consumers.
Mr. RAYMOND BLAIR: You know, you get angry because you realize there's a lot of products out on the market that aren't safe. And you think that someone should be checking that or making sure that we're not exposed to that.
HA: Someone is trying to make sure kids aren't exposed. But the problem is, enforcement is lax right now. A new Consumer Product Safety law went into effect last February that makes it illegal to sell toys and other children's products if the lead content exceeds 300 parts per million.
The law also requires items to be certified by third-party labs. But here's the loophole: The certification requirement has been delayed until 2010 to give manufacturers and laboratories time to prepare.
Unidentified Child: Grandma, I like that one.
HA: So how assured can consumers be that products for kids don't exceed the lead limits? NPR member station KQED and a Berkeley nonprofit, Center for Environmental Health, shopped at 14 discount store locations in California, including this one in Orange County.
At all but two stores, we purchased children's products that exceeded the new federal lead limit. Of the couple hundred products we tested — toys, jewelry, and everyday items like rain ponchos — about one in six exceeded the limit.
At this store, 4U Bargain, a child's backpack that KQED purchased tested three times above the lead limit. Owner Frank Noh was surprised.
Mr. FRANK NOH (Owner, 4U Bargain Store): I bought this one maybe two years ago, maybe. The importer has to test, I think.
HA: Like many of the other small store owners, Noh says he's not aware of the new lead standards.
Unidentified Woman: So, this is a metal, star-shaped zipper from the CD case. And he will be cutting into smaller pieces.
HA: A technician at MACS, the laboratory that conducted testing for KQED, is getting a hot-pink CD case ready for a lead test. The case, purchased at Dollar Discount in Newark, is branded with a name many families know well and trust: Disney. And it features the cast of the popular movie "High School Musical."
(Soundbite of scraping)
HA: These test results show the zipper contains six times the legal lead limit. A Disney spokesman says the company requires manufacturers of Disney-licensed products to provide lab results showing merchandise meet current federal standards. But problems can occur later on, after a product passes, according to the spokesman and consumer advocates. Disney says though it spot-checks merchandise, it relies on manufacturers to make sure it's compliant.
Many larger retail chains, including Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and Target, have beefed up their lead testing programs and already require manufacturers to provide third-party lab results. But the government's delay of the certification requirement may allow smaller stores and some discount chains to skirt the law.
Mr. DON MAYS (Consumers Union): Without certification, then there's no guarantee.
HA: Don Mays oversees product safety at the nonprofit Consumers Union in New York. He says the law mandating stricter lead limits doesn't have much teeth behind it right now.
Mr. MAYS: If the law is not being enforced, then the stores can put products on the market unchecked. And that, to me, is a serious problem.
HA: He and other consumer advocates say the federal agency responsible for enforcing the law — the Consumer Product Safety Commission — is stretched way too thin, with few inspectors to enforce tens of thousands of different kinds of products. Spokesman Scott Wolfson says all retailers and manufacturers are expected to follow the law, despite the government stay requiring certification.
Mr. SCOTT WOLFSON (Consumer Product Safety Commission): It's very serious for somebody to not be compliant. These limits were put into place to give parents more confidence when they go shopping. We know that there are probably products out there that violate this new law. We're ready to act, but we need that information brought to our attention.
HA: Consumer advocates worry that problems are bigger at discount stores, which don't seem to have as rigorous programs to weed out leaded merchandise. Again, Don Mays of Consumers Union.
Mr. MAYS: The dollar stores are far less likely to scrutinize their shipments in that way. It's expensive for them. The whole idea with these stores is to keep the price as low as possible.
HA: And until the testing and certification requirement kicks in next year, it's buyer beware.
For NPR News, I'm Oanh Ha in San Jose, California.
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