WASHINGTON — Despite recent government recalls of millions of hazardous toys, consumer groups are urging parents to be extra vigilant this holiday season because store shelves are still stocked with toys that can pose serious health risks.
An annual toy safety survey released Tuesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found dozens of examples of toys and jewelry that contain choking hazards, high lead levels, dangerously powerful magnets and toxic chemicals.
Another group, the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, Calif., found that nine of 100 toys purchased last week from various retailers also had high lead levels. The nine products were all made in China. Additional tests in recent months found high lead levels in jewelry, candy, backpacks, lunchboxes, rain gear and baby bibs.
The findings, coming on the eve of the holiday shopping season, have fueled calls for congressional action and stronger oversight by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has seen its budget and staffing cut sharply in recent years.
"How is it that in just a few days we can find many problematic toys still on the store shelves?" asked Carolyn Cox, the research director for the Center for Environmental Health. "It's the beginning of the holiday shopping season, and it shouldn't be a minefield of lead hazards for parents. Toymakers, retailers and the CPSC are still not doing enough to protect children from lead in toys."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., called the commission a "paper tiger" that isn't living up to its responsibility to protect the public. He criticized acting chairman Nancy Nord for taking trips to toy industry events that were paid for by the manufacturers that Nord is supposed to be regulating.
Nord defended the agency's efforts to guard against unsafe toys, saying the CPSC has recalled 61 toys and 25 million products in 2007. "Toys today are undergoing more inspection and more intense scrutiny than ever before," she said.
But Ed Mierzwinski, the consumer program director at U.S. PIRG, said that with only one full-time toy inspector and 15 port inspectors nationwide, the CPSC lacks the resources to police the toy industry adequately. "The CPSC is a little agency with a big job it simply cannot do," Mierzwinski said.
Consumer advocates have called on Congress to increase fines for companies that sell dangerous products. They also want toymakers to test their products for safety before they're sold in the U.S.
Congress is considering legislation that would boost the commission's annual budget from $63 million to more than $100 million. The proposals also would increase civil penalties for manufacturers, reduce the allowable lead levels in toys and jewelry and require companies to release more data about product safety problems.
Mierzwinski also wants the CPSC to ban lead in all children's toys, much the way lead is banned in gasoline and paint. Lead exposure in children can cause various health problems, including headaches, hearing and behavioral problems and brain damage.
On Monday, the California attorney general and city attorney of Los Angeles sued 20 toy companies and retailers, including Mattel, Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us, accusing them of knowingly exposing children to high lead levels without providing enough warning about the risks.
In its 22nd year, U.S. PIRG's annual "Trouble in Toyland" survey has led to 120 toy recalls or other corrective actions by the CPSC and toy companies. Toys with strong magnets, if swallowed, could attach themselves in a child's body, causing a bowel obstruction or internal perforations. Mierzwinski said parents can check toys for choking risks by using a cardboard toilet paper roll. If any toy parts fit in the roll, it probably poses a choking risk for children under age 3.
Joan Lawrence, the vice president of standards & government affairs for the Toy Industry Association, supports increased funding and staff for CPSC. However, she's unsure whether increased penalties are needed since the CPSC has never used its authority to level $10 million penalties against manufacturers.
The toy association supports mandatory, uniform pre-market testing for products as well as testing by accredited third-party agencies. Lawrence said most manufacturers already test their products. The association is working with the American National Standards Institute to develop proper methodology and frequency for testing.
Parents seeking more information about toy safety should call the toy industry hotline at 888-884-TOYS or go to the association Web site at www.toyinfo.org.
To see the U.S. PIRG report about unsafe toys, go to www.uspirg.org/issues/toy-safety/trouble-in-toyland.
To report an unsafe toy or toy-related injury, or to report hazards or injuries involving any consumer product under the commission's jurisdiction, call the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission toll-free hotline at 1-800-638-2772. A teletypewriter for the hearing impaired is available at 1-800-638-8270.