Getting (and keeping) The Lead Out

By Jennifer Molk

    Last year at this time, holiday shoppers were making their lists and checking them twice. What they ended up checking for, months down the line, were stock numbers on those toys that might show toxic levels of lead. From Barbie and Dora to Tinker Bell and Elmo, it seemed none of our beloved childhood characters were immune to the massive recalls, and by year’s end, 2007 would go down as one of the most turbulent years in the toy industry in recent memory.

      Three billion toys are sold every year in the United States, according to the Toy Industry Association. Nearly 80 percent of those toys are at least partly if not entirely made in China, where the bulk of the tainted toys in 2007 were manufactured. American consumers were besieged with recall notices from companies accused of taking advantage of cheaper methods of manufacturing toys, but that would ultimately register toxic levels of lead. The discovery prompted the urgent recall of 45 million children’s toys and other items across the United States.

What is lead?

      Lead is a poisonous metal that is extremely harmful to the still-developing child. The most common places to find lead are in chipped and peeling paint in homes built before 1978, or from dust kicked up during home improvement projects in older homes. Symptoms of lead poisoning include damage to the nervous system and the brain and a host of other problems related to growth and development. Other more obvious symptoms may include behavioral problems, hearing loss and poor appetite. Extremely high exposure to lead could lead to death.

Taking back our toys

      So, what can we expect this buying season? A lot has happened in the last year to “take back our toys.” The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) oversees the safety in over 15,000 products. Recalls for lead in toys are up in 2008 when compared with 2007 in some areas, but are down in others. For example, the total lead toy recalls in 2007 were 22 for the whole year, but already show 41 as of June 6, which is the latest log the company shows for its fiscal year. However, regarding children’s metal jewelry, the number of recalls fall dramatically when compared with last year: 2007 logged 28 recalls for the whole year; as of June 6 for this year, the company shows only 16 recalls.

      Nychelle Fleming, a public affairs officer with the CPSC, said while lead in toys dominates the media lately, she reminded parents there is another concern. “Choking on small parts is still the leading cause of toy related deaths,” she said. “Parents should make sure they’re using the age labeling that is available on the packaging of products to make wise purchase choices.”

      Perhaps the most aggressive outcome to last year’s lead issues has been at the legislative level. President Bush in August signed into law the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The move is a monumental boost for the CPSC in areas of funding to be able to reduce tragedy, and enforces the toughest lead standards in the world to date. 

      As far as what shoppers can expect here at home, Target stores in Billings did not receive any of the recalled stock numbers last year. Jim Kaiser, Human Resources executive for Target’s west end store in Billings said, “We didn’t get anything that was recalled last year and we don’t expect to this year.” He credits his buyers on the national level for making sure the store fielded the right merchandise before it landed in consumers’ shopping carts.

      Still, toys are recalled frequently and for many different reasons, including everything from strangulation hazards to simply poorly written instructions. Mr. Kaiser ensures his store takes immediate action. “If something is recalled, we post it and remove everything immediately from the shelves and the stock room, and then we start taking returns. I feel confident, as far as Target is concerned, that if there is something that poses a concern, we will definitely take care of it immediately.”

Remember the 3 R’s

      Ms. Fleming of the CPSC offered an easy method of battling the recall issue. “Remember the three Rs: If you do find yourself with a recalled object, the consumer either gets a repair, a refund, or a replacement.”

      Log on to http://www.cpsc.gov for the latest recall information.  SFM

Jennifer Molk is a freelance writer in Billings.  She enjoys writing about topics and issues she herself seeks the answers to. She is a mother of two.