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Should Toys Be Tested Before They’re Sold?

Mattel’s popular brandsHave toys always been dangerous and we just didn’t know it? Salon author Katharine Mieszkowski recounted the summer’s toy fiascoes and it wasn’t a pretty read.
August was the cruelest month. First came Fisher-Price’s tainted toys; nearly one million Elmo, Cookie Monster, Dora the Explorer, and Diego toys had been tainted with lead-contaminated paint at a factory in China. (If you recall, the head of the factory committed suicide a few days later.) Just a few weeks later, Mattel’s Batman, Polly Pockets, and other licensed brands were recalled because they had small magnets coming loose and being swallowed by children, resulting in all sorts of gastric problems. Next it was SpongeBob, recalled for containing lead, followed by spinning tops and tin pails featuring Thomas and Friends and Curious George. All told, more than 150 million trinkets have recently been found to be contaminated with lead.

Much of the finger pointing was at Mattel. The most recent Mattel black eye came from the September recall of more than 500,000 toys in the U.S. that they admitted to finding problems with once they began investigating. At the moment, there’s a class-action lawsuit against Mattel asking for it to pay for testing and medical monitoring of exposed children.

It’s easy to blame China’s manufacturing process. Too easy. Two questions should be on every consumer’s mind right now. First,  what don’t we know? Mattel is shouldering the brunt of the media attention because they were diligent, forthright, and had pockets deep enough to investigate. How many other small toy companies are selling lead-tainted products? My guess is Mattel is not alone. (A look at CSPD data confirms my suspicions. The less you test, the fewer problems you find.)

Second, should we have a third party regulate the kids’ toy business? The toy industry has historically been self-regulating. There’s been no government oversight, nothing akin to the FDA’s regulation of food and drugs, for example. And frankly, they’ve paid no penalty for screwing up. Dangerous products are recalled from the shelves, but that’s about the extent of it unless consumers pursue legal action.

Should there be a government agency masterminding a solution? Today, the Consumer Products Safety Commission is responsible for protecting children from dangerous objects, but many feel that the agency has dragged its feet and never been proactive. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., proposed the Children’s Products Safety Act of 2007, which would require independent, third-party testing of all toys and products for children ages five and under, and prohibit the import of children’s products that have not been tested by a third party. Last month Barack Obama asked the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to consider his earlier proposal, the Lead Free Toys Act.

Me? I’d like to see a professionally run third party testing service to which toy manufacturers could submit products for review. The results would be openly available and standardized. A small fee collected for an evaluation would make this a self-funding business. I’d prefer it not to be a government agency, but have the government closely monitor the progress. What about you? Any ideas on how to make sure our kids don’t get hurt while playing with toys?