By Liz Szabo
Lead paint. Dangerous magnets. “Poison” plastic.
Alabama mom Trisha Gilbert says it’s not easy to keep up with the latest news on toy safety. Last year, Gilbert began researching the safety of her daughter’s products. She called manufacturers to learn more about the ingredients that go into everything from baby toys to sunscreen. After friends and neighbors began turning to her for advice, Gilbert, whose daughter is now 2½, decided to share her findings online at amomsblog.wordpress.com. “Parents are concerned, and they don’t know where to go,” says Gilbert, whose second child is due any day. “This takes away a lot of time from sleeping, but I feel better because I’m doing what’s best for my children, and I feel more confident in the products I’m using.”
Gilbert and a growing number of “citizen scientists” are stepping forward to help other parents find safer toys. “My ultimate goal would be for there not to be a need for blogs like mine,” Gilbert says on her blog. “But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
Consumer advocates agree that parents have good reason to be careful. New lead standards — part of landmark consumer safety legislation passed in August by Congress — won’t take effect until Feb. 10, says Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a key supporter of the law. She warns that stores may mark down toys with high lead levels to sell them before the deadline.” There are still going to be some dangers this holiday season,” Schakowsky says. Schakowsky says she’s also concerned that the government won’t enforce a ban on hormone-like chemicals called phthalates, as she and other lawmakers had hoped. A staff attorney at the Consumer Product Safety Commission has said stores may continue selling toys with phthalates indefinitely, as long as the products were made before Feb. 10. Schakowsky and others want to get rid of phthalates because of studies that show they can affect the reproductive system, especially in boys.
Yet consumer groups also say toymakers have made progress since last year, when 45 million toys and children’s products were recalled. In a report released today by the Michigan-based Ecology Center, researchers found high lead levels in 3.5% of 1,500 toys tested. Last year, twice as many toys had lead levels above 600 parts per million, the new standard that takes effect in February, says Jeff Gearhart, research director for the report, which can be found at healthytoys.org The project tests toys for a number of chemicals, such as cadmium, arsenic, mercury and chlorine. In all, 62% of products had low or undetectable levels of these chemicals. About 15% of jewelry had high lead levels, Gearhart says.
Some parents say they plan to err on the side of caution this Christmas. Eliza Kelly, a Seattle mother of two, regularly consults the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website, www.recalls.gov, to make sure none of her kids’ toys have been recalled. Jennifer Loukissas of Washington, who has a 6-month-old boy, says she has asked her family to look for wooden toys this year. “It’s not a sacrifice for him not to have plastic toys,” she says.
The Toy Industry Association says manufacturers and retailers have been rigorously testing their merchandise for the past year. Major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Toys R Us/Babies R Us also plan to phase out phthalates by Jan. 1, when a California law takes effect. A number of brands say their toys already meet the new federal standards, including Tiny Love, Hasbro, Melissa & Doug and RC2, which includes brands such as Lamaze Infant Development System, Learning Curve and Thomas & Friends. A spokeswoman for Fisher-Price and Mattel says the “vast majority” of toys shipped since this spring meet the new standards.
“The toys on the store shelves this year are pretty clean,” says the association’s Julie Livingston.