Toy recall's impact hits area shoppers

The Baltimore Sun

Amy Hough stopped by the Owings Mills Toys "R" Us store yesterday, but she avoided a line of playthings that her 2-year-old daughter Samantha loves.

"I kind of bypassed the Dora aisle," Hough said, "even though it's her favorite."

The 34-year-old mother was among the wave of concerned parents searching for help in responding to news of a huge toy recall that warned them that they might need to ditch Dora the Explorer and give Big Bird the boot - and left consumers wondering whether other dangers lurk in their children's toy boxes.

Still others, many voicing their concerns on parent- and consumer-oriented Internet blogs, vowed to stop buying products made in China.

Fisher-Price had announced that it was recalling nearly 1 million plastic preschool toys - including many popular characters from Sesame Street, along with Dora and her cartoon pal Diego - because a Chinese manufacturer used an unauthorized paint that contains excessive lead.

Yesterday's worldwide recall involves toys sold in the United States since May. An additional 533,000 such toys are being recalled in other countries, including Britain, Canada and Mexico.

In June, RC2 recalled 1.5 million Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway toys that had been sold nationwide from January 2005 through June 2007 because of lead in surface paint.

Baltimore health officials announced yesterday that excessive lead levels had been discovered in metal parts of a flashing Spiderman 3 ring being sold at a Dollar Tree store in the 2400 block of Frederick Ave. Health officials said they cited the store for the violation and banned the ring from being sold in the city.

Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Baltimore-based Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said yesterday that her office had been fielding questions all day.

"Our basic advice is, when in doubt, throw it out," Norton said. "The reality is that with lead poisoning, you may not know the impact immediately even if a child's lead level spikes. The impact comes when the child is 7 and can't read or he's 13 and has more aggressive behavior."

Lead poisoning causes damage to the brain, nervous system, heart and red blood cells, and can result in learning disabilities, hyperactivity, speech delay and hearing loss, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site. At extremely high levels, lead poisoning can cause seizures, coma or death.

Norton said parents have to be especially cautious with small children who are prone to put items in their mouths.

Norton advises that parents, at a minimum, have their children's blood tested for lead levels at age 1 and again at age 2.

"This is important," she said. "Once a child is lead-poisoned, the damage is irreversible."

Paint is the only product for which lead levels are restricted by federal law, which limits the amount of lead to 600 parts per million, according to city Health Commissioner Joshua M. Sharfstein. There is no federal regulation for lead in toys or children's jewelry, he said.

In banning the sale of the lead-tainted flashing Spiderman 3 ring, Sharfstein said officials found that the ring's insignia had 128,000 parts per million of lead.

Under city regulations, children's jewelry with more than 1,200 parts per million of lead may not be sold in city stores. Beginning next month, children's jewelry with more than 600 parts per million of lead will be banned from being sold in the city.

Sharfstein, whose announcement yesterday included a warning to parents about the Fisher-Price recall, said he was troubled that the major retailer would be grappling with lead-tainted toys.

He said retailers require manufacturers to meet "exacting" specifications for making toys, such as cutting material to a particular length, but haven't done enough to ensure the ingredients that make up the materials are safe.

Sharfstein added that because the safety commission's recalls are voluntary, parents should be "very nervous about anything with a painted surface."

In a statement issued yesterday, Fisher-Price and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission warned consumers to immediately take the toys away from children and contact Fisher-Price to return it for a voucher to purchase a replacement toy.

The recalled toys, which have date codes between 109-7LF and 187-7LF marked on them, were sold in stores nationwide since May for between $5 and $40, according to the statement.

This week's recall was the fourth in the past year from Fisher-Price or its parent company Mattel, including: 112,000 Rainforest Open Top Take-Along Swings in May; about 500,000 "Laugh and Learn" bunny toys in April; and 2.4 million Polly Pocket playsets in November, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

So far this year, toy companies have issued 26 recalls, all involving products made in China, according to the Consumer Reports Web site.

Although 2-year-old Langston Preston's Fisher-Price toys weren't bought in the recall period, his mother, Sarah Preston, 38, said she was alarmed.

The Towson mother said she spent 45 minutes yesterday morning on hold waiting for a Fisher-Price representative to tell her what she could do with the two Diego play sets and a toy farm, which were gifts to her son.

"Just because it was made six months ago and not three, I don't think it makes much of a difference," said Preston, who added that she didn't speak with anyone from Fisher-Price because she grew frustrated by the wait and hung up.

Hough, the Toys "R" Us shopper, said she examined her daughter's toys yesterday.

Given that Samantha, her only child, is an avid Dora fan, Hough was relieved to find only two of the recalled items in her home: a Dora doll and a Diego truck. She said she hid the two toys until she could go online to find out how to return them to the company.

"She has plenty of other toys, so she hasn't noticed," said Hough, a recruiting manager for a graphics company. "All these toys are so common - Dora, Sesame Street, Elmo - most kids will have at least one of those toys on the list."


Customers may send recalled items to Fisher-Price to receive a voucher for a new toy. Information on which toys to return and how can be found at the company's Web site, or by calling 800-916-4498.

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