TOPICS > Economy

Holiday Shopping Season Brings Toy Safety into Focus

December 20, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
Loading the player...
In the first of two reports on toy safety, NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at how the recent controversy over lead levels in toys is affecting consumer shopping this holiday season.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the first of two reports on toxic toys by our economics correspondent Paul Solman. Tonight, he looks at lead levels.

TOY TESTER: So you’ve got Diego, huh? Isn’t he cute?

PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour Economics Correspondent: A one-time testing of toys for lead at a mall in Rochester, New York with a state-of-the-art X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.

TOY TESTER: Yes, that’s lead.

TOY TESTER: About 550…

PAUL SOLMAN: … 550 parts per million, completely legal in the U.S., but many think it’s potentially toxic, because there’s new evidence, as you’ll see in a bit, that lead is dangerous at levels far below what the law allows.

SHOPPER: If it’s made in China, I mean, you wonder if it’s lead.

PAUL SOLMAN: American consumers have already been shopping scared this globalized holiday season due to the recall of some 25 million toys, mostly from China, which now supplies four-fifths or more of our playthings.

SHOPPER: I’ve been trying to purchase things not made in China, but it’s almost impossible to find anything that’s not.

SHOPPER: I’ve leaned away from buying more toys and getting more things like clothes or DVDs.

PAUL SOLMAN: So now you are Gary “The Happy Pirate”?


PAUL SOLMAN: Gary “The Happy Private” Smith, a kids’ entertainer, has run a toy drive for nine years. This is the first year, though, that he’s testing for lead.

GARY “THE HAPPY PIRATE” SMITH: When the recalls started coming out, our warehouse, which has over 20,000 toys, has to be gone through to see if these toys are in there. But if I had a ship that day, I would have probably sailed and looked for someone.

PAUL SOLMAN: You would have gone and sacked their corporate fortress?

GARY “THE HAPPY PIRATE” SMITH: Maybe pillage a little, yes, maybe.

Effects of lead exposure

PAUL SOLMAN: But before we get to the potential dangers of even lower than recalled levels of lead in toys, what have we long known about the heavy metal as a toxin? University of Rochester neurotoxicologist Deborah Cory-Slechta.

DEBORAH CORY-SLECHTA, neurotoxicologist, University of Rochester: It can cause lots of changes in brain chemistry to affect almost every region of the brain. And so, from that, you then get to behavioral changes, changes in cognition, those kinds of things, and things like changes in IQ.

PAUL SOLMAN: Though we're finding out more and more about the hazards of lead, we've known it wasn't safe for decades. The very first issue of Consumer Reports back in 1936 warned of lead in toys, as does the very latest issue.

TOY: I'm so glad you called!

PAUL SOLMAN: Don Mays is head of product safety at Consumer Reports.

DON MAYS, Consumer Reports: This was one of the many toys that was recalled by Mattel and Fisher-Price because of lead paint.

PAUL SOLMAN: And here's another recalled by RC2 Corporation.

DON MAYS: This is one of the components of the Thomas the train...

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes, yes, I know. My grandson has this.

DON MAYS: Very popular toy among children. It's a wooden toy, and it's got also lead paint on this product.

PAUL SOLMAN: Are you serious?

Both Elmo and Thomas have been on the recall list for months, among the 10 million toys recalled this year for lead levels above the 600 parts per million standard. You're watching only about half of this year's Fisher-Price recalls at the moment.

The leaden paint standard was set by the EPA back in the mid-'70s to be enforced by the then-new Consumer Product Safety Commission. The commission's current chair, Nancy Nord, enforces that same standard today.

NANCY NORD, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: We have on the books a ban on lead paint. Anything above 600 parts per million is in violation of our standard, and we will recall it.

PAUL SOLMAN: But the American Academy of Pediatrics is now urging Congress to lower the standard from 600 parts per million to 40. Why? Well, new research shows that even very low levels of lead are more dangerous than we ever thought, levels that show up in the blood and stay in the system for decades.

NANCY NORD: Our levels of concern back in the '70s and '80s were 30 micrograms per deciliter, 40 micrograms per deciliter, 60 micrograms per deciliter.

In the last five years to eight years, we now know that levels much lower than that, down to five micrograms per deciliter, maybe even two micrograms per deciliter are associated with changes in IQ. We looked at kids whose blood leads never went above 10 micrograms, and there we saw IQ loss of about 7.5 IQ points.

PAUL SOLMAN: Which can translate into something like 50 points on an SAT test. And it's not just IQ, of course, but also, as Amherst Professor Jessica Reyes points out...

JESSICA REYES, Amherst College: Increasing attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, increasing aggressive behavior, impulsive behavior, and even leading to things like juvenile delinquency and to crime.

DEBORAH CORY-SLECHTA: No level of lead is safe. So if you have toys, especially those first two years of life where you're putting the toy in and out of your mouth, it's getting wet, you can leech lead out of those kinds of surfaces onto the hands, into the mouth, the saliva itself will leech some of that out, you're adding to that lead burden.

Federal standards under scrutiny

PAUL SOLMAN: In short, say Cory-Slechta, Reyes and others, almost any lead could be dangerous, especially for young children. Yet Consumer Reports has found unrecalled toys still on the shelves that are made -- although not painted -- with lead.

DON MAYS: We tested toys, and ceramic dishware, and metal jewelry, and vinyl products, including lunchboxes and baby bibs, and we found lead in many different types of products.

PAUL SOLMAN: But the federal government's ban is on paint, not the product itself.

Most kids are not going to be sucking on their lunchboxes, so is there really as much of a hazard as you're seeming to suggest?

DON MAYS: They're certainly going to be touching it and then eating food, so there's potential transfer from their hands to their mouth.

But, more importantly, at Consumer Reports we did testing here to determine that, if you put any unwrapped foods in your lunchbox, it will transfer to the food. That results in direct ingestion of lead.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, to U.S. Consumer Safety Chief Nancy Nord, all this misses the bigger picture. First, paint on toys doesn't threaten children nearly so much as paint on walls does.

NANCY NORD: If they live in any house that was built before the mid-1970s, there is a very good chance that there is lead paint in that house. Children are poisoned by eating lead paint that is flaking off window sills and walls; that is where children are being poisoned by lead.

And the focus that this agency has come under, with respect to lead in paint on toys, has missed the whole bigger picture.

PAUL SOLMAN: As for lead within toys...

NANCY NORD: If there is no exposure, then under our statutes there is no risk.

PAUL SOLMAN: No exposure? No risk? That seems to be a matter of opinion. Consider this item: the Fisher-Price medical kit.

DON MAYS: This is a very classic toy. And when we did screening for lead, we determined that this blood pressure cuff...

PAUL SOLMAN: Blood pressure cuff.

DON MAYS: ... it goes around the arm. It has very high levels of lead. There's also a black arm cuff and a blue arm cuff. Those actually have low levels of lead. We found high levels of lead in only the red ones.

PAUL SOLMAN: Levels ranging from 7,000 to 10,000 parts per million, as much as 1 percent lead, more than 15 times the paint standard. But according to Nord's agency -- the one mandated to protect us -- it's perfectly permissible.

DON MAYS: It's not considered paint, so the regulations actually don't cover it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Consumer Reports contacted both Fisher-Price -- owned by Mattel -- and the Consumer Product Safety Commission before publishing an article on the kit. Neither took action.

Fisher-Price declined an interview, but said the toy "meets the requirements set forth in the federal regulations, including the existing standards for lead content."

Safety Commission spokesperson Julie Vallese said much the same.

JULIE VALLESE, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: The lead that may be present in its actual makeup is not accessible to the user. I think that you really need to question some of the science that is being used by groups that have an agenda.

PAUL SOLMAN: In the case of Consumers Union, an agenda to sell magazines, for example. We did, in fact, question scientists, as well as the country's top toy store. It has pulled the red cuff kit from its shelves.

JERRY STORCH, Toys "R" Us: It's enough for me at Toys "R" Us that Consumer Reports says there's a problem with the product. That's all I need to hear.

PAUL SOLMAN: We also questioned the state of Illinois, which found high levels of lead not only in the red Fisher-Price cuff, but also the green cuff in the company's Sesame Street Giggles Medical Kit for 18-month-olds and up.

Illinois has banned both, and State Attorney General Lisa Madigan wrote to us that, "Although we have provided our testing information to the CPSC, they've not issued recalls on these products. In fact, they" -- the CPSC -- "have told the companies that they are not required by federal law to remove or recall these products."

Meanwhile, what about the millions of medical kits already purchased, perhaps played with for years? Even with the recall, surveys show that fewer than 5 percent of consumers turn in the offending product.

DON MAYS: If you're not reading the newspapers, watching the news, listening to the radio at the right time and the right place, you're not going to get that information. The recall process just simply doesn't work.

Cost-benefit analysis

PAUL SOLMAN: This brings us to the final question about lead and toys from around the world, the economics question. Just how safe should we be? It's cheaper to use lead than other substances, after all, to make colors brighter, for example, plastic more stable.

Economist Jessica Reyes, however, thinks the cost-benefit analysis is a slam dunk. She realized that 30 years ago we were all exposed to high lead levels, since it was added to gasoline.

JESSICA REYES: And then, in the 1970s, as part of the Clean Air Act, the EPA mandated the removal of lead from gasoline, because they worried about a range of health effects.

PAUL SOLMAN: As lead was removed, state by state, year by year, it was a natural test of lead's effects. Reyes' results were kind of amazing.

JESSICA REYES: So you have this big change in lead exposure, and then, 20 years later, we see a big and surprising change in violent crime.

PAUL SOLMAN: A huge drop in the '90s and beyond, when most experts expected violent crime to continue its steep rise from the '70s and '80s.

Reyes' analysis credits several factors, including more police and prisons, but the biggest, according to her research, is the removal of lead from gasoline, lead removed at a cost of three cents to four cents a gallon.

JESSICA REYES: You can justify the entire removal of lead from gasoline, all of those costs, just through these crime reductions alone. In fact, the value of the crime reductions can be 10 times as high as the cost of the removal of lead from gasoline.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thus, to Professor Reyes, getting the lead out of toys is a great deal, as an economist and as a mom.

JESSICA REYES: The thing with lead is that its benefits are immediate and obvious to whoever's producing, whereas the costs are remote and they're insidious in a way that leads to all these bad effects.

PAUL SOLMAN: Bottom line, says the economist, it's better, because it's cheaper -- in the long run, a lot cheaper -- to be safe than sorry in a holiday season with more global toys than ever.

JIM LEHRER: In his next report, Paul will look at how the safety of toys and other products is monitored.