RISING TIDE OF UNSAFE IMPORTS

The Baltimore Sun

Yesterday's recall of 9.5 million more brand-name toys made in China - on the heels of tainted pet food, contaminated toothpaste and Sesame Street toys covered with lead paint - has safety advocates demanding reforms in the way imported products sold in the U.S. are tested before they are put in stores.

And some vinyl baby bibs sold at Toys "R" Us - including a store in Maryland - appear to be contaminated with lead, laboratory tests have shown, making the inexpensive bibs another example of a made-in-China product that might be a health hazard to children, The New York Times reported.

The vinyl bibs, bearing illustrations of baseball bats and soccer balls and Disney's Winnie the Pooh characters, sell for less than $5 under store-brand labels, including Especially for Baby and Koala Baby.

Tests financed by the Center for Environmental Health of Oakland, Calif., found lead as high as three times the level allowed in paint in several styles of the bibs purchased from both Toys "R" Us and Babies "R" Us stores in California.

A separate test at a lab hired by the Times of the same Toys "R" Us bibs, bought in Maryland, found a similar level of lead.

Kathleen Waugh, a Toys "R" Us spokeswoman, said the company had done its own tests on the bibs as recently as May and found them in compliance with safety standards for lead levels. "Our uncompromising commitment to safety has been, and continues to be, our highest priority," she said in a written statement.

Officials from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates children's products, said that they agreed that lead had no place in bibs.

But their own recent tests of baby bibs on the market in the United States found that the lead, when present, was at levels low enough that a child chewing on or rubbing the bib would not get an unhealthy dose.

As a result, the agency urges parents to discard vinyl bibs only if they are ripped or otherwise deteriorated.

Much of the apparatus that governs product safety is based on the honor system, with companies testing their own products for contaminants and setting their own safety standards. It leaves holes in the safety net that consumers have long assumed is protecting their children from hazardous toys, their pets from poisonous food, themselves from dangerous food and drugs.

"Unfortunately it takes a problem like this to focus reform, but this is the time," said Rachel Weintraub, director of food safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit association of consumer advocacy groups. "This testing needs to take place before the product hits the market."

More and more products are being imported into the United States from China, including 80 percent of children's toys, 90 percent of lighters and more than 90 percent of fireworks. Some ubiquitous food additives - wheat gluten and ascorbic acid, to name two - now come almost exclusively from China.

But very little of what's produced in China or other exporting nations is inspected as it enters the United States. While the Consumer Product Safety Commission has the power to stop products at the ports, it doesn't do so as a matter of course, acting when it receives intelligence that an unsafe product is on its way. Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tests less than 1 percent of imported food. Both agencies have had staffs slashed in recent years.

The CPSC is doing "as good a job as we can do in terms of using the resources we have to find products that have a violation," said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the agency.

Yesterday, toy stores were cleared of 9.5 million Mattel toys, including Polly Pocket dolls and accessories considered dangerous because small magnets inside them could come loose and be swallowed by children. Also on the recall list were die-cast versions of the character Sarge from the movie Cars, due to lead paint. Nearly two weeks ago, 1 million Fisher-Price toys, many of them figures of Sesame Street characters, were recalled because of lead paint used in a Chinese facility.

The summer of many recalls began in June, when 1.5 million Thomas the Tank Engine toys were pulled after lead was found in the red paint used on the wooden pieces made in China.

Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association, said yesterday's recall shows the safety system is working and the numbers of troublesome toys are small, considering that 3 billion toys are sold each year in the United States.

"When something like this slips through the safety net, it takes the products out of the marketplace," he said. "People can feel very confident about the toys that are on the shelves."

Keithley added that the blame shouldn't be placed on China. He said many of the companies he represents test their products before they leave China and many retailers in the U.S. test them again before consumers have a chance to take them home. Still, he said, his members would be willing to "take another look at safety."

In Washington yesterday, some lawmakers urged reforms. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, who has sponsored legislation that would require manufacturers and retailers of children's products to submit to independent third-party testing of their products, called for the temporary detention and inspection of children's products from China that contain any paint at all.

"Doing so is a strong step, but one that will catch tainted and dangerous toys before they hit store shelves," Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said in a statement.

Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who is working on a measure to add fees to imported products to cover the cost of increased inspections, said: "You do not have to accept products into this country which pose a health and safety threat to the American people - in this case, toys."

Other ideas being discussed in Washington include requiring some companies to post bonds to ensure that they have enough money to pay for recalls. Earlier this year, an importer could not afford to recall and replace hundreds of thousands of defective tires made in China. Some lawmakers also want to increase the budgets of the FDA and consumer products agency, so they can keep up with the burgeoning volume of imported goods.

"Yes, we are a small agency, but you know what? We are very tough; we are very tenacious," Nancy Nord, the acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said on CNN. "And we do our job and we deliver for the American taxpayer."

Trust has long played a crucial role in the U.S. economy. Manufacturers and retailers put products up for sale with the expectation that consumers can give a toy to a child and not have to worry about small pieces breaking off or lead seeping out of the paint, that they can enjoy a can of soup and not have to worry the contents will cause disease.

"I just don't think there's a lot you can do in terms of knowing what's safe and not safe," said Dr. Claude Earl Fox, an expert on food safety who formerly taught at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

William Hubbard, who was assistant FDA commissioner for 14 years until 2005, said: "These are commodities that ordinary citizens cannot make their own judgment about. You're dependent on somebody to step in."

Marla Felcher, who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has written extensively on product safety, said much of what is brewing today can be traced to 1981 when Congress amended the Consumer Product Safety Act.

Those amendments meant that mandatory safety standards could not be imposed in most cases if industry agreed to issue voluntary standards, she said.

"This has been a problem waiting to explode for years," she said.

stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

Sun reporter David Nitkin contributed to this article.

Recalled toys

The following Chinese-made toys have been recalled in the past two years because they contained small magnets or their paint contained lead:

Lead

About 253,000 Sarge toy cars, imported by Mattel Inc. and recalled yesterday

About 1.5 million plastic preschool toys including Big Bird, Elmo, Dora and Diego characters, imported by Fisher-Price Inc. and recalled worldwide Aug. 2. The recall includes 967,000 of the toys in the United States.

About 13,000 toy sets, imported and retailed by AAFES (Army & Air Force Exchange Service) and recalled July 18. Three thousand toy sets were previously recalled May 23.

About 1.5 million Thomas & Friends wooden railway toys, imported and distributed by the RC2 Corp., recalled June 13

About 4,500 toy drums, imported by the Boyds Collection Ltd. and recalled May 30

About 5,000 bamboo game sets, imported by Target and recalled May 2

About 7,200 stuffed balls, manufactured by Regent Products Corp. and recalled March 28

About 128,700 toy sets, imported and retailed by Toys "R" Us Inc. and recalled March 13

About 190,500 toy play sets, imported and distributed by Target and recalled Nov. 15, 2006

About 340,000 bendable dog and cat figures, distributed by Fun Express Inc., a subsidiary of Oriental Trading Co. Inc., and recalled Aug. 17, 2006

About 20,800 dinosaur and doggie flashlights, manufactured by the Little Tikes Co. and recalled March 1, 2006

About 140 Maptangle World Edition Floor Mat Map Games, manufactured in Taiwan (floor mat only) and distributed by Hidden Hills Productions Inc. The product was recalled Aug. 25, 2005.

About 438,000 fishing poles featuring cartoon characters, distributed by Shakespeare Fishing Tackle Division and recalled June 17, 2005

About 1.5 million toy fishing poles featuring cartoon characters, distributed by W.C. Bradley/Zebco Holdings Inc. doing business as Zebco, and recalled April 13, 2005

About 220,000 Nu-Tronix Karaoke Cassette Player/Recorders, distributed by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and recalled April 13, 2005

Magnets

About 7.3 million Polly Pocket play sets, imported by Mattel Inc. and recalled Tuesday. About 2.4 million Polly Pocket play sets were recalled Nov. 21, 2006.

About 1 million Doggie Day Care play sets, imported by Mattel Inc. and recalled yesterday

About 683,000 Barbie and Tanner play sets, imported by Mattel Inc. and recalled yesterday

About 345,000 Batman and One Piece action figure sets, imported by Mattel Inc. and recalled yesterday

About 800 Mag Stix magnetic building sets, distributed by Kipp Bros. and recalled July 5

About 8,800 toy townhouses, distributed by Small World Toys and recalled May 3

About 4 million Magnetix building sets, imported by Mega Brands America Inc. (new owner of Rose Art Industries Inc.) and recalled April 19. About 3.8 million of the building sets were previously recalled March 31, 2006

About 30,000 Link-N-Lite magnetic light-up puzzles featuring Disney and Spider-Man characters, imported by Jazwares Inc. and recalled Feb. 15

About 40,000 sets of MagneBlocks magnetic construction toys, distributed by Geometix International LLC and recalled Jan. 18

[Associated Press]

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