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A Look at Who Is in Charge of Testing for Tainted Toys

December 28, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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In the second of a two-part series, NewsHour economic correspondent Paul Solman continues his report on the safety of toys sold in the United States, now focusing on the regulatory agencies intended to safeguard consumers.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the second of two reports on toxic toys. Last week, economics correspondent Paul Solman looked at lead levels. Tonight, he focuses on who’s in charge of testing for tainted toys.

PAUL SOLMAN: In Rochester, New York, Judy Braiman, grandmother of eight, holiday shopping. But Braiman was not preparing to stuff the stockings for her grandkids. She’s a consumer vigilante…

JUDY BRAIMAN, Consumer Activist: OK. I think I’m ready.

PAUL SOLMAN: … amassing specimens for the lab. A former adviser to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission soon after it was founded, Braiman also wrote the first “Consumer Reports” toy guide in 1988. These days, with toys flooding the market from relatively unregulated countries, mainly China, she’s more worried than ever.

JUDY BRAIMAN: Could you look for lead and cadmium along with the phthalate?

PAUL SOLMAN: The lab that tests toys for Braiman has been in business for 25 years. We asked owner Bruce Hoogesteger what the toy results have been showing.

BRUCE HOOGESTEGER, President, Paradigm Environmental Services: Within about the last two years, 10 percent, 20 percent, 25 percent of those products have some sort of elevated lead, cadmium or other metals concentrations in them.

PAUL SOLMAN: At her home, Judy Braiman showed us some highlights from what she calls her chamber of horrors.

JUDY BRAIMAN: Asbestos is in this products, two different types of asbestos. This is a teething blanket where children bite on it. And we tested the parts where they can bite on it, and we found high levels of phthalate. It’s a hormone disrupter and a carcinogen. And also that particular product there, that…

PAUL SOLMAN: The Frosted Flakes, yes.

JUDY BRAIMAN: Yes, the — it wasn’t the flakes. It was the product that they were promoting in here has mercury in it.

PAUL SOLMAN: And then there’s — what is to Braiman — the most worrisome new toy toxin, cadmium.

JUDY BRAIMAN: Which is also a heavy metal, and far more dangerous than lead.

PAUL SOLMAN: The EPA allows only five parts per billion of cadmium in our water supply.

JUDY BRAIMAN: We found it contained 340,000 parts per million in the charm alone.

PAUL SOLMAN: So that’s 34 percent cadmium?

JUDY BRAIMAN: Yes, 34 percent cadmium.

PAUL SOLMAN: And where is it made?

JUDY BRAIMAN: It’s made in China.

Government regulation

PAUL SOLMAN: So, cadmium, lead, asbestos, mercury, phthalates, the list of toxins in our toys seems to be getting longer, as we keep importing more and more of them from abroad.

There's even lead in Christmas light wires. "Consumer Reports" suggests washing your hands before dressing the tree. For even for those not quite as alarmed as Judy Braiman, then, all this raises a question: Who's minding the store? Well, the government used to, says Braiman, back when the Consumer Product Safety Commission was founded in the early '70s, and she was a consumer activist.

JUDY BRAIMAN: They were very responsive. We met with the commissioners. We got to know them. We had input.

PAUL SOLMAN: So how about now?

JUDY BRAIMAN: It's like you're bothering them if you tell them about something that's dangerous, if you're concerned.

PAUL SOLMAN: Concerned because of the recent testing she's done, as with cadmium charms.

Did you tell the Consumer Product Safety Commission about this?

JUDY BRAIMAN: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so what was the response?

JUDY BRAIMAN: I didn't get a response.

PAUL SOLMAN: Acting chair Nancy Nord, however, says the Consumer Product Safety Commission is responsive to any item brought before it.

NANCY NORD, Acting Chairwoman, Consumer Product Safety Commission: We will test it. If there is a problem there, we will recall that product and we will take action against the manufacturer. That's what these recent spate of recalls was all about. That is evidence that the CPSC is out there in the marketplace working to protect consumers.

PAUL SOLMAN: The CPSC is proud that it has recalled some 25 million toys this year alone. But Judy Braiman sees it differently.

JUDY BRAIMAN: If there are more recalls, that means there are more dangerous items on the market.

Nancy Nord under fire

PAUL SOLMAN: Sharing Braiman's skepticism, some in Congress have called for Nord's resignation. A former lawyer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a lobbyist for Kodak, Nord has come under fire for, among other things, the continued shrinking of her commission.

It's down from 800 people when it was created in 1972, to some 400 today.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, Ken. It's Barbie.

PAUL SOLMAN: The liberal Campaign for America's Future even has a video up on the YouTube Web site to recall Nancy Nord.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have contracted something. It's lead poisoning.

PAUL SOLMAN: Robert Borosage runs the group.

ROBERT BOROSAGE, Co-Director, Campaign For America's Future: She was the head of the agency for two years. Its budget went down to the lowest levels ever. The staffing went down to the lowest levels ever, and this taking place at a time when we have gone from a national economy with national producers to a global economy with 80 percent of our toys coming from China.

NANCY NORD: This agency today is accomplishing more than it has in its history.

PAUL SOLMAN: Nord, for her part, blames Congress, and has tried to reassure American toy consumers, for many of whom tainted toys represent the dangers of globalization come home to roost. From our admittedly small sample, however, it's not clear Nord has allayed the public's fears.

WOMAN: If I was a parent with young children, I would be very definitely afraid to buy anything that was marked with China on it.

MARYLOU PAPADOPOULOS: I think that the government should provide the funding to have the toys inspected, rather than have us wait until it's too late and give a toy that's not safe.

PAUL SOLMAN: Even Santa's not sanguine about toy safety these days.

MAN: The elves are very careful to not use any of that stuff. We're very concerned about that.

Manufacturers' responsibility

PAUL SOLMAN: Nord's expectation is that manufacturers will be responsible.

NANCY NORD: We are also talking about something that is -- once damaged, is hard to repair, and that is the damage to a company's reputation and their brand, when they sell a product that doesn't meet U.S. safety standards and has to be recalled.

PAUL SOLMAN: Nord's point was echoed in Rochester.

KIM PAPADOPOULOS: If we don't trust them, they will lose business. And I think there's a danger of that happening now.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, then that means the market works, because the consumer ultimately punishes the...

KIM PAPADOPOULOS: Ultimate...

PAUL SOLMAN: ... renegade producer.

KIM PAPADOPOULOS: Ultimately. But there's a big time lag. And, meanwhile, what's unleashed on the public?

PAUL SOLMAN: Things like the Fisher-Price Medical Kit with a blood pressure cuff laden with lead.

GARY SMITH, Entertainer: Judy Braiman had one and we tested it, and it was high.

PAUL SOLMAN: Gary "The Happy Pirate" Smith, a Rochester kids entertainer, who sponsored a lead testing event at a local mall recently:

GARY SMITH: I have six children myself. I have bought Mattel, Fisher-Price throughout my children's lives. Who would think Mattel would do something like this?

PAUL SOLMAN: You didn't?

GARY SMITH: I wouldn't have. No, absolutely not. I felt safe with Mattel. Now I don't know. Now I look at the product and I say, eh, I'm not too sure.

NANCY NORD: This summer, the Mattel corporation had a very well- publicized and rather scandalous recall of about 15 million toys.

PAUL SOLMAN: Scandalous meaning?

NANCY NORD: Scandalous in the fact that it happened.

PAUL SOLMAN: Nord says she will impose strict sanctions, but won't talk about them publicly. And while skeptics may doubt her, industry analyst Sean McGowan takes a different tack: It wasn't Mattel itself trying to cut costs.

SEAN MCGOWAN, Toy Industry Analyst: Mattel hires a third party. The third party hires a fourth party or a fifth party, and somebody substitutes the paint that they were given for bad paint.

Globalization concerns

PAUL SOLMAN: Parties in China.

Once again, globalization could be seen as the culprit. In any case, tainted toys continue to make news. Recent tests by a coalition of environmental groups on 1,200 toys still on the shelves showed 17 percent had illegally high lead levels. So, it's not clear that consumers can put their faith in manufacturers who are sourcing abroad.

But if some worry that neither government nor industry is minding the store, what about the stores themselves?

Jerry Storch is CEO of Toys 'R' Us.

JERRY STORCH, CEO, Toys 'R' Us: We have terminated several vendors this year already, and we have had very, very, very tough discussions, very tough commercial discussions which really hit hard with the toymakers about what we expect of them going forward.

PAUL SOLMAN: The world's biggest toy retailer employs secret shoppers who test purchases for lead. It boasts a no-questions-asked return policy for recalled toys, even if they're not bought there. As for those sold at Toys 'R' Us:

JERRY STORCH: I can guarantee you that any product that's been recalled is off the shelves.

PAUL SOLMAN: Toys 'R' Us felt it needed to fill the vacuum, but it's just one retailer. And, of course, the 25 million or so recalled toys this year were initially purchased through stores.

OK. So, if consumers are afraid they can't count on the vigilance of government, manufacturers, or even most stores, should they test the toys themselves? There have been toxic toy tests all over America this month. But the X-Ray fluorescent spectrometers used at many cost about $35,000 each.

Professional lab tests for heavy metals and other toxins could set you back several hundred dollars apiece. Inexpensive home lead test kits are available, but the CPSC says they are unreliable.

So, consumers might feel they have to rely on those who have chosen to mind the store for them, groups like Consumers Union, individuals like Judy Braiman.

There is, of course, another possibility, that Braiman, C.U., and the rest, including us, are making too much of current risks.

Nancy Nord thinks so.

NANCY NORD: Toys are one of safest products in the American marketplace. And the toys on the shelves this year, right now, have gone through more inspections and more testing than in any years past. So, parents, I think, can shop with confidence this year.

PAUL SOLMAN: Look, says industry analyst Sean McGowan, things were much worse back in the old days.

SEAN MCGOWAN: I can just remember from my own childhood the kinds of toys that we were allowed to play with, with no particular warning and no age ranging on it, would never pass muster today.

DAN AYKROYD, Actor: It teaches him about light refraction, prisms.

SEAN MCGOWAN: And even "Saturday Night Live," you know, ran the old skit of bag of glass and bag of nails.

CANDICE BERGEN, Actor: Oh, so, you don't feel that this product is dangerous?

DAN AKROYD: No. Come on, look, we put a label on every bag. It says, kid, be careful, broken glass.

PAUL SOLMAN: The point is, we're arguably a long way from the days when safety was a joke. And, indeed, as we thought about the risks that even the tableaus from Santaland in Rochester would now pose, if we did as the elves did, we realized we're a lot more risk-conscious these days than we used to be.

So, we asked Judy Braiman: Might not today's toy risks just be the price of living in a high-tech, low-cost world?

JUDY BRAIMAN: That's true, but sometimes I wonder, are we going backwards? When it comes to children, we shouldn't have any risks. We should make it as risk free as possible.

PAUL SOLMAN: In which case, the last question would be the one running throughout this report: Who's minding the store?