Are U.S. toys safer in 2008?
Industry participants believe they are and some numbers seem to prove them out. Even so, some environmental groups are not so sure.
As of early December, there were 64 U.S. toy recalls comprising 7.5 million toys, vs. 84 recalls affecting 29.1 million toys in the comparable period in 2007, said Frank Clarke, spokesman for the Toy Industry Association Inc. of New York.
In total, about 3 billion toys are sold annually in the United States. Most recalls are voluntary and not forced by government, according to TIA.
The decline in recalls ``is proof the market is safer,'' said Alan Korn, director of public policy and general counsel for Safe Kids Worldwide.
Korn said retailers are paying more attention to what is on their shelves than in the past. And they are working more closely with vendors, he said in a telephone interview from Safe Kids' office in Washington.
``At Wal-Mart the safety of our customers and the products we sell is critically important,'' said Wal-Mart Stores Inc. spokeswoman Tara Raddohl. ``That's why last year we enhanced the product safety guidelines required of all toy and children's products suppliers. All toys ordered for this coming holiday season are required to meet our increased standards.''
New toys made since the recalls of 2007 are safer ``because manufacturers took a better look at the production process,'' said Marianne Szymanski, president and publisher of Toy Tips & Parenting Hints magazine, in an e-mail from her publication's head office in Franklin, Wis.
Toy companies have stepped up testing and some such as toy rotational molder Step2 Co. LLC of Streetsboro, Ohio have set up new laboratories to keep a close eye on safety.
Building-block maker Lego A/S is doing a lot of work to comply with U.S. and European Union regulations, said spokeswoman Charlotte Simonsen.
``Our biggest concern is safety,'' she said in a telephone interview from Billund, Denmark. ``In that way, we are not changing the way we look at business. Maybe there are changes in procedures.''
Korn said extensive media coverage helped the safety drive.
``Companies and parents responded to it.''
The U.S. toy industry spends about $300 million per year globally on toy safety, estimates TIA.
TIA is reaching out to consumers by providing more data so they can make informed choices. The association has expanded its Web site with safety tips and explanations of how the testing system works.
``To help ensure safety, major toy retailers and manufacturers have tested and retested the toys on the shelves this holiday season,'' TIA writes on its Web site. The toy industry works with the American National Standards Institute, ASTM International, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Congress, testing laboratories, consumer groups, health and safety experts and foreign agencies.
Greater efforts in China also promise to improve safety [see sidebar].
Next season more safeguards will be in place.
The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act passed in August makes regulations for toys and other products stricter for policing by CPSC. The law, which becomes effective Feb. 10, among other regulations, restricts toy lead levels and the types of phthalates that can be used to plasticize toys.
Some phthalates are permanently banned in children's toys and child care products at levels above 0.1 percent. Other phthalates are temporarily banned at levels above 0.1 percent while a scientific advisory board studies over three years whether to continue the ban or lift it. One of these, diisononyl phthalate, is the most commonly used phthalate in children's toys.
The law places the responsibility of compliance on toy companies. TIA will work with CPSC to help turn the law into functional regulations, Clarke said.
Portions of the act give CPSC more authority and financing. Nearly half of CPSC's $66 million annual budget is used on safety for toys and children's products.
TIA is developing a Toy Safety Certification Program with ANSI. Clarke said the program will be implemented in stages throughout 2009. It includes developing a safety mark for toys that indicates the toy meets U.S. regulations and safety standards. The program's aim is to enhance toy safety and reassure the public.
Meanwhile, some states have implemented or are considering their own legislation despite the imminence of new national regulations in the CPSIA.
A few environmental groups have said they take issue with industry's positive opinions.
HealthyToys.org said it found one in three toys tested contained medium to high levels of chemicals allegedly of concern, including lead, flame retardants and vinyl.
The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based group found lead in 20 percent of the 1,500 toys it tested this year versus 35 percent last year. Some 2008 levels were higher than the 600 parts per million federal recall standard for lead paint and also will exceed the U.S. legal limit in February, according to HealthyToys.org. Children's jewelry was among the worst offenders.
TIA responded by criticizing HealthyToys.org's testing method which is usually used for screening.
``Thus, it is not an accurate measurement of the amount of any substance, nor is it a method consistent with U.S. safety standards for toys,'' the association stressed in a prepared statement.
Although toy safety has improved, ``there are still issues with lead and phthalates,'' Korn said.
``Don't throw caution to the wind,'' he said.
Since Congress passed new legislation of lead and phthalates in August, some toys on shelves could exceed standards coming into effect in February. This has prompted a lawsuit against CPSC.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Public Citizen filed the lawsuit on Dec. 4 with the holiday season in full swing.
``By permitting [the] sale of banned products after the date of the statutory ban, [the CPSC ruling] contradicts Congress' clear command,'' the groups charge.
CPSC counsel opined in November that toys containing phthalates could continue to be sold after the ban date in February if they were manufactured before that date. NRDC and PC said the opinion represents a loophole allowing dumping of illegal toys on the market after Feb. 10.
``Overwhelming evidence led Congress to ban these toys, a ban that some retailers have already started to adopt,'' the groups claimed in a press release. ``The CPSC decision completely undermines those efforts by allowing banned toys to sit on the same shelves as the safe ones.''
In 2007, there were 18 toy-related deaths in the United States, according to CPSC. Most were associated with choking on small toys, drowning and motor vehicle accidents during play. Toy-related hospital emergency-room admissions totaled 170,000 for children under 15. The majority of injuries were lacerations, contusions and abrasions.