HONG KONG — The global push on toy safety in recent years, which some government regulators believe has reduced the number of unsafe toys in the market, is not going away.
In fact, judging from comments at a recent industry conference at the Hong Kong Toys and Games Fair, more limits on the chemicals used in toy manufacturing are coming. Experts at the Fair urged Hong Kong and mainland Chinese factories, which make by some estimates more than 70 percent of the world's toys, to prepare.
"You don't need a crystal ball to know that more chemical restrictions are coming," said Vincent Tam, technical chair of the Hong Kong Toys Council, an industry trade group, and an executive at plastic toy maker Jetta Co. Ltd.
He spoke in an address at the Hong Kong Toys Industry Conference 2014, held Jan. 8 as part of the Hong Kong Toy Fair.
In particular, Tam recommended that the Hong Kong and Chinese toy factories improve their chemical skill sets by investing in better in-house testing labs and hiring more chemical engineers. He said HKTC developed a chemicals database two years ago to help the industry better cope.
Tam, who is director of systems and compliance for Hong Kong-based Jetta, told the audience of mostly local manufacturers that he believes governments will put even more limits on chemicals in response to public concern.
He noted the 2008 ban on some phthalates in plastic toys in the United States, and specifically mentioned several U.S. states taking action.
"While it is quite an investment to set up an in-house chemical laboratory, if you compare it to the cost of third-party testing and the cost of [product] recalls, you will find it is worthwhile for you," he said. "You need chemical knowledge to manage the chemical legislation."
Prompted by a series of safety scandals with Chinese-made toys, the U.S. government in 2008 undertook a major update of toy safety. It banned some phthalates in toys, put new limits on lead, adopted much stricter testing and recordkeeping requirements, and gave government regulators power to impose much larger fines for violations.
One big topic of the conference was new European Union requirements that came into force in July further limiting chemicals in toys.
Government officials from both the EU and the U.S. told the conference that more regulations are likely coming.
Jurgen Vogelgesang, a policy officer in the directorate general of Enterprise and Industry at the European Commission, said the EU is debating limits on Bisphenol A, a building block of polycarbonate, and several flame retardants used in plastics — TCEP, TCPP and TDCP.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, for its part, is looking at whether more types of phthalates should be banned.
"We're in the process of studying additional [phthalates] to see whether or not they should be banned," said Marc Schoem, deputy director in the Office of Compliance and Field Operations at the CPSC.
"It raises the sensitivity and the concern of the use of chemicals in any toy or plastic products," he said. "Like the EU, we are very concerned about that and we want to try to stay out in front of that issue."
The regulators and industry officials at the conference praised what they said was much greater cooperation between governments and companies in recent years, and the EU and US officials said they're working more closely with Chinese regulators.
The CPSC set up an office in Beijing in 2009. The EU has for several years shared data with Chinese regulators about Chinese companies listed as violating toy safety standards in the EU Rapid Alert System, or RAPEX, for dangerous non-food products.
China is the only country that the EU shares that information with because it is the "world's workshop" for toys, Vogelgesang said. He said the EU "very much appreciates" the efforts of Chinese regulators.
Schoem said the CPSC believes the additional measures have made toy safer in the United States, which is the world's biggest toy market, accounting for about 25 percent of global spending.
The U.S. government issued 31 toy recalls in its most recent fiscal year, ending September 30. That's the smallest number of recalls in five years and way down from the peak of 172 in 2008.
"Definitely we see improvement on a day-to-day basis with the toys that are coming to us from Asia," said Schoem. "I think the message I want to impart today is it's important to maintain that position. We don't want to slip backwards to the days of old but we want to stay out front and be more proactive and catch problems before they occur."
In his speech, he acknowledged that the decline in recalls could also "just be a reflection of the number of reports and our ability to process those reports," although he said "there does seem, at least from the highs of 2008 and 2009, a leveling off of the number of recalls."
EU's Vogelgesang said he could not say if toys are safer, since the Commission does not track data by recalls, which would be done at the national level.
"We cannot say whether it has become better or whether it has become worse," he told the conference. "But the authorities will continue to check that dangerous products, in particular dangerous toys, are no longer for sale in the European market."
He suggested in an interview after his speech that China will remain a focus for European regulators. He said 58 percent of actions listed in the EU's RAPEX warning system in 2012 concerned Chinese-made goods, which reflects the emphasis that regulators place on that country, he said.
"Europe is flooded with toys made in China and other products made in China," he told Plastics News. "The authorities in the EU are targeting the Chinese toys and Chinese products because they know they could be dangerous. It's very biased towards Chinese products, you have to be aware of this."