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J. Mijin Cha on January 22, 2008 - 7:43am
Back in May, when testing of baby bibs imported from China revealed high levels of lead, retail giant Wal-Mart claimed to recall the product. The vinyl portion of the bibs exceeded the lead levels set by Illinois for children's products. A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart said, "We at Wal-Mart are committed to working... to develop industry standards for the elimination of vinyl in children's products." Wal-Mart pulled the product from its shelves nationwide, but only provided refunds or replacements to customers in Illinois.
Fast forward seven months to December: Wal-Mart continued to sell the recalled bibs, not in Illinois where they are banned, but in other states, even though they are the exact same bibs that were banned in Illinois due to high levels of lead. As companies like Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us continue to sell toxic toys, it's become even more imperative that states take action-- which many are doing this year, as this Dispatch will highlight.
The Toxic Toy Problem
Lead is a well-known health hazard. Yet,in some of the toys recalled this summer, the lead content was 180 times the amount allowed by law. According to the American Medical Association, there is no safe level of lead. Moreover, the symptoms of high lead levels can be vague and easily confused with a viral illness risking further damage and exposure. So, why is it appearing in children's toys and products?
When the Washington Toxics Coalition and others tested 1,200 popular children's toys for toxic chemicals, they found that more than one-third of the toys contained lead and other toxic chemicals, including cadmium and arsenic, were found in a number of toys. Toxic toys, according to the Campaign for America's Future, has even disrupted the widely beloved Barbie and Ken relationship.
Last week, the United Steelworkers spearheaded a National Day of Action on Toxic Trade to bring attention to the issue and demand immediate congressional action. Along with community allies, the Steelworkers visited one hundred congressional offices calling on Congress to pass the U.S. Food and Product Responsibility Act. The Act would shift the responsibility for ensuring safe food and products onto the companies producing the goods and the importers importing them. But given federal inaction, it's even more necessary that states pass new laws to stop the poisoning of our children.
Taking Action to Ban Specific Toxics
Remarkably, or maybe not so remarkably, even when faced with the Wal-Mart example and other overwhelming evidence, Congress has yet to pass anything to stop the import of toxic toys. However, the states have already been taking action to protect the health for our children. As early as 1989, the Coalition of Northeastern Governors drafted the Toxics in Packaging Act, which has been adopted by 19 states, a law which requires that concentrations of four toxic metals (including lead) be reduced to less than 100 parts per million -- a far lower level than the 600 parts per million allowed by the federal government.
California in 2007 became the first state to outright ban most phthalates, a toxic softening agent used to make plastic flexible, with AB 1108 which was introduced by Assembly Member Fiona Ma. Other states are now following to ban a broad range of toxic chemicals and strengthen state enforcement agencies to protect our children.
Michigan's legislature recently passed SB 174 sponsored by Republican Senator Roger Kahn to ban the sale of toys and other children's products with a lead content of 0.6% or more. The bill was signed into law at the end of December.
Proposals by Maryland's Delegate Hubbard protects against lead and pthalalates through two different bills: HB 56 which would ban bisphenol-A or specific phthalates from children's toys or child care articles and HB 62 would ban certain lead-containing children's products or lead-adulterated consumable products.
Heading Towards Comprehensive Protection
Lead is not the only toxic chemical. New potentially hazardous chemicals are being added to toys and products even where lead is banned. Testing and monitoring chemicals helps ensure that toys and products remain safe for children. In Maine, Rep. Hannah Pingree introduced LD 2048 to protect children's health and the environment from toxic chemicals. Rep. Pingree's bill first identifies and lists at least 100 chemicals of high concern as priority chemicals based on various criteria. This list is updated at least every three years. The bill then requires that any person who manufactures or distributes children's products for sale in the State that contains a priority chemical must then disclose the products in which they are used.
The bill also identifies and determines safer alternatives for the priority chemicals and can require manufacturers or distributors to use the safer alternative when available. Finally, it authorizes participation in an interstate clearinghouse to promote safer chemicals. Wisconsin Rep. Cory Mason plans to introduce a bill similar to the one introduced in Maine.
Washington State Proposes Most Comprehensive Solution: Taking the protection level even higher, Washington Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson introduced HB 2647, which forbids any person from manufacturing, knowingly selling, offering for sale, or distributing for sale or use any children's product or product component that contains lead or cadmium at more than 0.004% by weight, or Phthalates, individually or in combination, at more than 0.01 percent by weight. The bill also requires the identification of high priority chemicals besides the pthalathes and lead and notice of products that contain them.
Rep. Dickerson's bill requires that manufacturers of children's products with banned chemicals must recall the product and reimburse the retailer or other purchase for the product. Violations result in a civil penalty of a maximum $5000 for the first offense and then maximum $10,000 for each repeat offense. The bill also includes public awareness campaign provisions and the requirement that a website be created that provides consumers with information on chemicals used in the children's products, the reason the chemical has been listed as high priority, and any safer alternatives to the chemical. HB 2647 combines strong protection against toxic toys and also access to information for consumers, a key to keeping parents informed and empowered to protect their children against toxic toys.
According to Michael Schade of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, there are two major reasons toxic toys exist, the first being a complete lack of federal oversight in safety testing of chemicals in children's products. The second reason is that manufacturers are putting profits over children's health. In fact, a toy manufacturer in China states that, "If the big brand comes back to us and asks for us to cut costs, our only option is to compromise on materials."
Similar to Wal-Mart's disregard of the public, Toys "R" Us recalled 16,000 toy units because of high lead levels in November, yet another 128,7000 toys had been pulled from the same brand in March because of lead and Toys "R" Us had not stopped selling the brand. Last year, 800,000 tainted products were found on the shelves of Toys "R" Us and Dollar General, another company managed by the same big equity firm, leading to recalls -- although only after many of the products had already been sold to children across the country.
With bad trade deals driving the dumping of toxic products into the US marketplace, it becomes even more necessary for states to step up and pass the regulations needed to protect their smallest consumers.