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Parents beware: Hazardous toys may still wind up on store shelves

Are toys safer now? Sure, say federal regulators and Mattel, the world's biggest toy maker. But a study from a consumer watchdog group and my recent trip to the Toy District cast serious doubts.

November 25, 2009|David Lazarus
  • "Things get missed," a regulatory official says. "But we're getting better and better at catching things." Above, items in downtown L.A.'s Toy District.
"Things get missed," a regulatory official says. "But… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

As the holiday shopping season kicks into high gear this week, it's a good time to ask: Are the toys we're buying any safer than they were a couple of years ago, when millions of playthings were recalled because of high lead levels and other hazards?

The world's largest toy manufacturer, El Segundo's Mattel Inc., says yes, as do federal regulators.

But after spending a few hours roaming the Toy District in downtown Los Angeles, I'm not so sure.

In one shop, I found a package of brightly colored rattles and pacifiers manufactured in China. The package depicts babies in cribs playing with the contents, which include small pieces that could break or be bitten off easily enough.

It says in large print that the rattles and pacifiers are for kids ages 6 months and up.

But in a corner of the box, someone had affixed a sticker. "Warning: Choking hazard -- small parts," it says in small print. "Not for children under 3 years."

Whether anyone would see such a modest warning was one thing. Why anyone would buy a box of rattles and pacifiers for a child over 3 was another.

The sticker appeared to be a halfhearted effort on someone's part -- the manufacturer? the distributor? -- to comply with U.S. safety laws. But everything else about the package seemed designed to get potentially dangerous toys into the hands of little ones.

I reported what I'd found to Alexander Filip, an official with the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

"This may be something that needs to be looked into," he said.

"Things get missed," Filip acknowledged. "But we're getting better and better at catching things."

Are we?

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a watchdog organization, said in a report Tuesday that it had found numerous examples of toys that represent a choking hazard, as well as toys that contain dangerous chemicals or that can cause hearing loss because they're too loud.

"It's still 'buyer beware' for this shopping season," said Liz Hitchcock, U.S. PIRG's public-health advocate. "Shoppers should remember to examine all toys carefully for hidden dangers before making a purchase."

Also this week, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the recall of more than 2.1 million Stork Craft cribs -- the largest crib recall ever. The cribs, manufactured in Canada, China and Indonesia (and also sold under the Fisher-Price logo), caused at least four kids to be suffocated, according to the commission.

Looked at one way, the recall shows that the system works -- unsafe items are being pulled from the market.

But because some of the faulty cribs were manufactured as manyas 16 years ago, the recall also suggests that the system has failed consumers in a profound way. A potentially lethal product for small children was available in stores for a very long time.

Most of the merchants and shoppers I spoke with in the Toy District said they assume that everything's now safe, especially after various measures were implemented by federal authorities after the 2007 toy recalls.

"I depend on the government," said Mario Gallardo, manager of a store called Tiny Tots. "If they allow it to come to America, it has to be safe."

Diamond Bar resident Julie Lee, 31, was similarly hopeful. "The government inspects everything, right?" she asked.

Well, no.

Federal authorities try to stay on top of the millions of containers arriving at U.S. ports every year. But there's no way they can peek inside every box passing through Customs.

Maybe that explains why I came across a plastic, battery-operated mobile for babies' cribs. The made-in-China mobile features plastic animals hanging from strings. The box says it's for kids ages 6 months and up.

But there was that little sticker again, saying you should place the mobile only on the cribs of kids who are at least 3 years old (the age at which most experts say your crib days should be behind you).

So I'll ask again: Are toys any safer now?

"I'd have to say yes," answered Jim Walter, senior vice president of product integrity at Mattel, which also owns Fisher-Price. "The industry recognized some issues a couple of years ago, and we came out of it a stronger industry. We've become much more vigilant."

Those issues, at least as far as Mattel was concerned, involved the manufacturing and importing of about 2 million toys that ended up being recalled because of high lead levels.

Mattel agreed to pay $2.3 million in June to settle charges from the CPSC that it knowingly imported and sold unsafe toys.

Walter said that about half of Mattel's products manufactured abroad come from factories owned and operated by the company. The other half comes from vendors that Mattel says it relies on to meet the company's and the U.S. government's safety standards.

"It's the old thing -- trust but verify," Walter said. "Verification is an important step."

My sense is that leading manufacturers such as Mattel, as well as big-dog retailers like Toys R Us and Wal-Mart, have learned their lesson and are genuinely committed to ensuring that toys are safe.

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