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Toys are still dangerous despite recalls

ASHLAND — Despite all the press and protests, toys with lead — as well as magnets and small parts that can harm children — continue to be readily found in stores everywhere, as evidenced by display of a table full of them, all bought at Rogue Valley chain toy stores the day before.

The display at the Ashland YMCA, put on as an annual preholiday warning by Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group, showed The Duck Family, a package of small toy ducks from China, painted with lead paint, which can be dangerous if a child sucks on it enough, said Sayla Eisner-Mix of OSPIRG at Southern Oregon University.

The federal Consumer Products Safety Division is "a little agency with a big job" of screening millions of toys at scores of shipping ports with a staff of 15 inspectors and one full-time toy tester, said Matt Wallace, consumer associate with OSPIRG in Portland.

OSPIRG's toy safety campaign has triggered 120 recalls in its 22 years of operation and at www.toysafety.net offers a sampling of what to avoid.

In addition to warnings against choking on marbles and balloons, it cautions about loud toys that can damage hearing, toys that have unnecessary choke warnings (thus diluting the effectiveness of such warnings), and toys with strong magnets that can stick to each other, perforating the digestive tract if swallowed.

With almost 500 recalls, this year is being called "the year of the recall," said Wallace. However, he added, with global markets and massive store chains demanding the cheapest toys — and virtually no screening between manufacturer and store shelf, it's up to Congress to pass tougher laws and fund better inspections.

"Getting recalls is a passive process. The Consumer Safety Products Commission gets notified when there's a strong potential of getting hurt by a toy. A lot of it (notification) comes from European regulators, who have stronger laws," said Wallace.

More than 73,000 American children under 5 go to emergency rooms each year with toy-related injuries, and OSPIRG is calling on citizens to ask Congress to ban imports of lead in greater than trace amounts, greatly increase the CPSC budget to allow hiring of more inspectors and require toy makers to have third-party testing on their goods, said Eisner-Mix.

In doing their demonstration shopping in Oregon stores, Eisner-Mix said OSPIRG workers easily found four toys with high, illegal levels of lead, with one piece of jewelry having 65 percent lead by weight — a thousand times the allowed amount. The toxic metal causes low IQ, delayed mental and physical development and can cause death

Recall actions are voluntary, said Wallace, meaning that, after the recall, the retailer is responsible for getting dangerous toys off the shelf — and the penalties are small enough to be considered "a cost of doing business." He said penalties, now capped at $1.3 million, should be made 100 times that in order to have any effect. The U.S., said Eisner-Mix, can't control what is made in other countries and its screening must take place at ports of entry and on retailer's shelves.

OSPIRG's list of manufacturers and brands with dangerous toys includes many familiar to consumers, including Mattel, Barbie and Polly Pockets. Also on the list are Boom Blasters toy guns, Dream Dazzlers kid clothing, Sodor Dairy Cars and Elite Operations war toys.

About 80 percent of toys sold in the U.S. now are made in China — and many of them carry the labels of reputable U.S. manufacturers, said Linda Graham of Scheffel's Toys in Jacksonville. However, she noted, most of the 300 toy makers in China are reputable and manufacture goods according to the standards asked for by American or European companies — and these will cost more.

"You get what you pay for. Buy items based on how they are made, not where they are made," said Graham, adding that if you shop at stores "where price means everything," you will get toys made by bad companies.

However, even relatively pricey Thomas the Tank Engine toys have been recalled for lead paint hazards. But Graham said a child would have to consume the paint from more than 100 Thomas & Friends toy train cars in order to have health problems.

While many Americans now say they want to buy toys made only in the U.S. or Europe, Graham said "these same people refuse to pay a higher price for an item when the Chinese-made version would cost much less. Why the higher price? When's the last time you worked for $5 a day or even $5 an hour? Get real!"

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.