A Fresh Look in China's Toxic Toy Chest
Once again, parents have been asked to purge their homes of toxic toys. This time, they included dolls with hazardous magnets and tiny Sarge trucks. On August 2, it had been Dora, Elmo, Big Bird, and Diego figurines. And in June, millions of Thomas and Friends trains were recalled. Many were adorned with lead paint. All came from China. And all were trusted brands like Fisher-Price and Mattel. Never before have parents on the receiving end of the global economy felt so defenseless.
The United States banned lead paint in children's products in 1978—even trace exposure to lead wreaks havoc on the developing brain. Yet lead, which makes paint brighter and more durable, is still widely used around the world. Mattel's trouble came when its contractor changed paint suppliers. That switch reflects the growing maturity of China's economy: Where American companies once supplied materials to be assembled in China, Chinese firms now have their own supply chains. That makes policing quality much harder. And Chinese acts of extreme contrition—the suicide last week of a disgraced manufacturer; the earlier execution of a corrupt official—offer little comfort.
Health experts say that any given child's lead exposure from the recalled toys was probably small. (Worried parents can take children for a simple blood test.) But multiplied many times over, even modest exposures harm society. "Small changes in IQ or behavior or learning that affect hundreds of thousands or millions of kids [can] be very significant," says Jerome Paulson, a pediatrician at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The biggest lead risk to our kids is still paint in dwellings built before 1978; about 310,000 children ages 1 to 5 have blood levels higher than the government-set "action level."
With 80 percent of the world's toys made in China, parents may have a hard time refilling their toy boxes or even buying holiday presents this winter. "If people want to be particularly cautious, having kids play with pots and pans...isn't a bad idea," Paulson says. At least then, parents will know where the toys came from.
This story appears in the August 27, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.