Hong Kong — Health and safety were front and center as a key selling point at this year's Hong Kong Toys & Game Fair.
Firms aggressively wallpapered their booths with test results, safety certificates and certifications. Sales managers made a point of talking about the purity of the resins they used. Testing and certification companies aggressively hawked their offerings.
And the big topic at a packed panel discussion on toy testing was those lurid hoverboard fires seen in countless web videos.
The fires are caused by rapidly discharging lithium-ion batteries that generate intense heat, setting the plastic chassis on fire.
“The scary part is it can happen anywhere — indoors, outdoors, or in your living room at home,” said Jake Miller, regional public safety attaché at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
There may be no better indicator of China's outsized role in the U.S. toy market than that the CPSC's sole overseas office is in Beijing.
“Fifty percent of all products we regulate are from China. Almost 90 percent of all toys [sold in the U.S.] are from China,” said Miller, who is in charge of the office.
In 2011, CPSC launched the office primarily to educate Asian manufacturers on U.S. safety law.
“Our message is, if you're a manufacturer, no matter where you are, understand the requirements and be able to test for the requirements,” Miller said.
On Jan. 20, CPSC Chairman Elliot Kaye announced that the agency was investigating 13 brands of hoverboards. In an email, CPSC spokeswoman Patty Davis said that most are made in Shenzhen, China.
Miller said that the problem may come from the battery, or its charger — the two are frequently made by different companies. “Traceability is a problem,” he said. Another problem may be poor design, as engineers try to squeeze batteries into small, poorly ventilated niches.
Perhaps a bigger hazard than fires is that of simply falling off the self-propelled devices – there have been at least thirty emergency-room visits in the U.S. due to falls, Miller said. Because they're small and seemingly slow-moving, people tend to relax on them. “Your guard is down when you're on these things,” Miller said.
Miller, an engineer, plans to visit Chinese manufacturers and give a technical presentation on CPCS's concerns.
Meanwhile, CPSC investigators back in America are trying to figure out the exact cause of the fires. If necessary, the agency will talk with a voluntary standards body such as West Conshohocken, Pa.-based ASTM International.
Rapid changes in the toy industry pose a big challenge. “There's only so much you can do. Companies show up and they're gone the next day,” Miller said.
At CPSC, research continues on three phthalates — diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP), and di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP) — that have been temporarily banned in baby-care items and toys that can be placed in a child's mouth. Currently, CPSC bans the phthalates di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), or benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP) in baby-care items and toys. All the phthlates are banned at concentrations greater than 0.1 percent.
The emphasis on safety should not be surprising. The trade fair focuses on putting manufacturers in touch with potential buyers worldwide. Before the buyers sign on the dotted line, most of them want reassurance that the goods they buy are safe. The seminars on national toy safety standards — last year for Indonesia and the Gulf States, this year for China — are always packed.
Still, even industry professionals can be bewildered by the alphabet-soup of acronyms and the technical issues underlying them. The European Union alone regulates toys and baby products by Reach (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals), EN (the prefix for toy safety rules), RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive) and R&TTE (rules about radio and telecommunications equipment, sort of the EU's FCC). And each country also has its own rules.
In the United States, phthalates are regulated by CPSC, while the Food and Drug Administration is in charge of BPA. And states often offer their own requirements: California is especially strict on flame retardants.
All of which add up to booming demand for testing and inspection services. “We need to offer a test report on all our products,” said sales manager Leo Yang of Shantou City Hengdi Industry Co. Ltd., a manufacturer specializing in toy drones.
It's a theme taken up by Mike Kjer, vice president of marketing at Chenghai-based Ao Jie Plastic Toys Factory Ltd., which specializes in plastic sporting goods. “Each retailer wants its own tests for a toy. It would be great if we could streamline the process.”
Companies offering testing services must maintain up-to-date databases of regulations and test requirements worldwide. “We always ask about the destination market,” Rahul Chawla, business development at Hong Kong-based lab AsiaInspection. “You want to sell, say, in California or Norway or the U.K. We advise you on what tests are appropriate in your region.”
Safety was even a bigger selling point at the show's baby products area. At the booth for Dongguan Cibay Industry Co. Ltd., sales manager Doris Liao was handing out four-color brochures touting how the company's silicone baby bottles, nipples, teething rings and bowls comply with an alphabet-soup of regulations. “Our products are BPA free.”
Like other vendors, Liao made a point of saying Cibay sources its resins from outside China. “We buy silicone resin from Japan and America. We buy polypropylene from America,” she said.