Labels Can Help Shoppers Avoid Lead Contaminated Toys This Holiday SeasonDec 19, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP
Lead free toys might seem a rare commodity this Holiday Season, considering this year’s endless string of toy recalls. But finding safe toys is possible – provided consumers know what to look for.
This holiday season is posing all sorts of challenges for parents trying to ensure the toys they buy are lead-free. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has recalled 75 brands of toys since the beginning of this year; 39 due to lead exposure. Exposure to lead in children and unborn children can cause brain and nervous system damage, behavioral and learning problems, slowed growth, hearing problems, headaches, mental and physical retardation, and behavioral and other health problems. Lead is also known to cause cancer and reproductive harm and, in adults, lead can damage the nervous system. But lead isn’t the only problem according to two consumer investigations—toys with small parts and small magnets can pose choking hazards.
The widespread recalls have lead to confused consumers who don't know how to tell whether a toy is safe or not. "We get a ton" of lead questions, said Kate Tanner, owner of Kidstop Specialty Toys and Books and president-elect of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, added, "Hundreds of people are asking that question all the time."
Consumers buy nearly half of all toys sold in the U.S. in the fourth quarter, which includes the holiday shopping season, according to market researcher NPD Group. Tanner said no product carries a 100% safety guarantee, but concerned shoppers can boost their toy-buying confidence by looking for safety-standards labels that are similar to a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Products deemed safe carry labels known as EN71, ASTM F963, or ASTM F967 and refer to toy safety standards in Europe and the U. S. The standards cover choking hazards, product flammability, and acceptable lead paint levels, among other things. Labels are periodically updated when a new hazard is revealed.
Many shoppers associate safety concerns with toys made in China, partly because the country—which manufactures about 85% of all toys sold in the U. S.—came under scrutiny earlier this year after Mattel Inc. recalled over 21 million toys. Mattel later acknowledged it could have done a better job of overseeing subcontractors in China, but safety experts and retailers say that a toy that's made overseas isn't necessarily unsafe.
Michael Green, executive director for the Center for Environmental health, said the CPSC should do more to ensure dangerous toys aren't approved for sale. "The problem is that these things need to be considered safe before they get on the store shelves," he said. "There's no requirement for these companies to have third-party testers."
Meanwhile, parents say they do the best they can. They, like other shoppers, agree that toy safety has taken center stage this season but said they don't spend all their time worrying about it, feeling that there have been so many recalls this year that it’s difficult to keep track. One parent says she lets young sons play with recalled toys as long as she's supervising them. She and other mothers say they tossed toys with magnets or hazards they see as a clear risk. Other parents said they evaluate toys based on safety concerns as much as they do on whether they're intellectually stimulating.