China agrees to new efforts to halt export of lead-painted toys

Thomas & Friends spinning top initiated a voluntary recall after the painted wooden handle on one of the toys was found to contained 40 times the legal limit for lead.
Thomas & Friends spinning top initiated a voluntary recall after the painted wooden handle on one of the toys was found to contained 40 times the legal limit for lead. Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — Amid heightened concern about the safety of foreign products, the U.S. and Chinese governments agreed in writing Tuesday on measures to prevent future export of Chinese-made toys containing lead paint to the United States.

The pact, announced at the second U.S.-China consumer product safety summit, calls for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine to develop a comprehensive plan to assure that Chinese exports comply with a 1978 U.S. law that bans lead paint in toys.

In the last month, millions of Chinese toys sold by Mattel were recalled because of dangerously high levels of lead paint.

In addition, the U.S. and China agreed to develop new procedures to address recurring quality and safety problems with Chinese-made lighters, fireworks, electrical products and other toys.

Acting consumer commission Chairman Nancy Nord said there would be more inspections of U.S.-bound products, efforts to educate Chinese manufacturers and exporters on U.S. product safety standards, more training on product testing methods and regular information exchanges.

In addition, China agreed to help trace products with safety problems to the companies that manufacture, distribute and export them.

Nord said private industry in both countries must take greater responsibility, as well, by conducting more product safety tests and purchasing materials from reputable suppliers.

"No longer can industry tolerate an ask-no-questions mentality when making, ordering and purchasing products," she said. "Everyone in the chain of commerce has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that the products that end up in the consumers' hands, especially in the hands of children, are safe. The stakes are just too high."

Chuanzhong Wei, vice minister of China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, signed the new agreement and acknowledged that there are "indeed some quality problems with individual products." But he added: "We are actively taking effective (action) to resolve those problems."

He said China's recent recalls and safety problems stem from differences in Chinese and U.S. standards for quality and safety, and poor product designs by foreign manufacturers. But he also cited "distorted reports" about Chinese products, which he said have hurt the country's reputation as a trade partner.

Wei said that based on the billions of products China ships worldwide, it was "normal" to have problems with a small fraction of goods. But recent actions by the Chinese to improve quality, such as government inspections to certify more than 12,000 exporters, have helped weed out bad players.

But many remain unconvinced about China's ability to police rogue manufacturers because of its historically lax regulation of industry.

Nord said the U.S. will monitor Chinese toys for lead-tainting. "We will not hesitate to take very stringent enforcement activities" if any are found, she said.

Tuesday's agreement comes shortly before the holiday shopping season, and Nord reassured U.S. consumers that they can shop with the confidence that the toys they buy are safe.

"Because of commitments that the Chinese government has made to us and the work that our two agencies will be doing together, we are working very hard to assure that the marketplace is safe, and parents should be confident that we are doing our job in that respect," Nord said.

While the new agreement takes effect immediately, some experts say the accord won't be fully in place for the holiday shopping season since most toymakers have already begun or will soon begin shipping their holiday orders.

"The big question is what percent of toys on shelves for the holidays will be covered by the new initiative," said Janell Mayo Duncan, senior counsel for Consumers Union, a watchdog agency. "And what assurances do we have that toys on the shelves now don't have high levels of lead paint?"

Duncan said the agreement was a valuable step forward, but only in providing safeguards that consumers already had expected were in place. "This is a huge game of catch-up," Mayo added.

Some toymakers use lead-based paint because it's cheaper than lead-free paint and it makes colors brighter. Lead paint exposure in children can cause various health problems, including headaches, hearing and behavioral problems and brain damage.

Frank Clarke, a consultant for the U.S Toy Industry Association, agreed that the new lead-paint initiative won't be fully operational in China until next year. But new safety tests conducted by such toymakers as Mattel and Disney, along with testing by stores like Toys R Us, should make for an especially safe holiday season.

"It seems unlikely that there's going to be many (dangerous toys) slipping through at this point," Clarke said.