The makers of a Thomas & Friends spinning top initiated a voluntary recall of the product yesterday, prompted by a Chicago Tribune test that found a painted wooden knob on one of the toys contained 40 times the legal limit for lead.
The toy maker, Schylling Associates of Rowley, Mass., said the recall would cover 24,000 Chinese-made tops shipped by the company between June 2001 and July 2002.
The company also revealed that its own records show it knew about the problem five years ago. But instead of recalling the tops, a Schylling executive said, the company changed the design to a plastic knob.
In researching its records after inquiries from the Tribune, Jim Leonard, the company's chief operating officer, said Schylling found a June 2002 test report showing that the Thomas & Friends top contained lead paint on its wooden knob. That led the company a month later to make the switch.
Asked why the company did not recall the toy at that time, Leonard said, "I can't answer that. ... I had just started here."
Schylling also is investigating whether lead contaminated two more of its products, a similar toy called a Circus Top and a number of metal pails that also featured wooden handles, according to Leonard.
"It's very clear we have a product we sold that had lead in it," he said. "It's not something we intended or wanted to have happen. We're very frustrated by that."
The company is the latest toy maker to recall lead-tainted products made in China. The number of Schylling toys affected is far smaller than the recent lead-related recalls of nearly 1 million Fisher-Price toys and 1.5 million Thomas & Friends wooden railway toys.
But the Schylling case illustrates how the government's reliance on companies to police themselves can leave consumers unwittingly vulnerable to unsafe products.
It also shows how even tainted toys that haven't been shipped in years can remain in circulation through the retail bazaar that flourishes on the Internet. In the case of the Thomas top, the Tribune was able to purchase it online through eBay.
One of the most common hazards is lead, a toxic metal banned in most products in the U.S. three decades ago but still a frequently used raw material in factories overseas.
It can cause brain damage if ingested by children, lowering IQ's and causing developmental delays. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no safe level of lead exposure for children.
Maurice Possley and Michael Oneal write for the Chicago Tribune.