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After recalls, playthings pile high for toy testers

Gone is the 40-hour work week at Specialized Technology Resources Inc. Boxes of toys are piling up in the middle of its testing lab, workers are coming in on weekends, and product testers who normally would check tools or candles are working on chess sets and plastic cars.
Toy Testing
Linda Root, laboratory manager at Specialized Technology Resources, Inc., uses a razor blade to demonstrate a paint removal technique on a toy car at the laboratory, in Enfield, Conn. Paint removed from the toys using this method is then tested in the lab for possible dangerous levels of lead content. Recent recalls of millions of toys is sending business bustling at testing labs. Steven Senne / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gone is the 40-hour work week at Specialized Technology Resources Inc. Boxes of toys are piling up in the middle of its testing lab, workers are coming in on weekends, and product testers who normally would check tools or candles are working on chess sets and plastic cars.

Business is bustling since the recent recalls of millions of toys. Management at the international product testing company is considering adding to its 1,600-person staff.

"Right now, we're using everybody in toy land," said Linda Root, manager of the company's toy testing lab here.

The recalls have toy companies from the largest toy maker Mattel to small importers clamoring to hire companies such as STR to test and retest their toys as a way to allay consumer fears ahead of the key holiday shopping season.

Several testing firms operate worldwide, including Switzerland-based SGS Group, which has 48,000 workers in 1,000 locations, Bureau Veritas Group, with 26,000 employees in 700 locations, and London-based Intertek, which employs 20,000 people in 100 countries.

Mattel's first recall this summer, 1.5 million toys tainted with lead paint, was a wake-up call for the industry, said Sue DeRagon, STR's associate director of toys and premiums. Since then, Mattel and others have recalled more than 20 million toys for high lead levels or for small magnets that children can swallow, prompting toy companies to do more tests.

That's kept the lab, housed in an old textile mill in this town north of Hartford, plenty busy. Toy companies are sending samples of finished toys to test, especially for lead and magnets, which can be dangerous if they are swallowed and join together in the digestive system.

Testers conduct a battery of tests on each toy, based either on U.S. toy safety standards or something more stringent, if that's what a company wants.

To check for lead, lab workers use a razor blade to scrape off paint from the toy's painted surface. They need .1 grams of paint to test, which can be a challenge when dealing with something like dice which has only painted dots, or a chess set with lots of nooks and crannies.

"It is very tedious work. It's not easy," Root said. "You do have to pay attention so you don't lose fingers and cut yourself in any way. There is no easy way of getting it off. It can take hours."

If a piece of a toy can be grasped or bitten, such as an arm or leg on an action figure, testers put that piece in a torque gauge and twist it to see if it snaps. Then, they pull the arm or leg for 10 seconds. Any piece that breaks off is measured in a "small parts cylinder." If it fits inside the shot glass-sized cylinder, it could choke a child.

Toys are also dropped several times and placed over a candle flame for five seconds, then allowed to burn for one minute to see whether they will easily catch fire.

Testers check for sharp edges and points, and look for long strings or other pieces of cloth that could strangle a child. If a loop of string can pass over a metal "head probe" about the size of a baby's head, it could be dangerous, Root said.

Testers also look for so-called "filth" in the stuffing inside plush toys.

"You find bugs. Dead bugs usually. If they sweep up the floor, there could be sawdust," Root said. "We found just recently we had one that had metal shavings in it."

STR even sends toys out to a local day care center and testers watch the children play.

"We'll direct them and say, 'See if you can break the head off this figure,'" DeRagon said. "It's important to get some real-life information. Let's really see how they're playing with it."

American law does not require toys to be tested before they get into children's hands, although the Toy Industry Association now supports a federal mandatory testing requirement. For now, how thoroughly toys get tested — if at all — can vary widely from one company to another.

The cost of testing is often borne by the manufacturer or importer. A basic lead test could cost $35 for a toy line, DeRagon said.

Costs for more extensive tests can range from a couple hundred dollars for a line of toys that's already packaged and in a warehouse, down to nearly negligible if a company has a long-term testing program in place at the assembly line, said Sean McGowan, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities.

Much of the testing that's been going on recently is retesting, so it's more expensive, he said. More regular testing, which the industry is now considering making a requirement, would bring down costs, he said.

Companies are supposed to adhere to voluntary standard consumer toy safety regulations. Toy makers, testers and retailers work with the Toy Industry Association to set the standards.

"What's scary is when you hear a toy manufacturer say 'Huh, I've never of this,'" DeRagon said.

Companies like Pawtucket, R.I.-based Hasbro, Van Nuys, Calif.-based MGA Entertainment, and Canadian companies Spin Master and Mega Brands already require all their toys to be independently tested.

Several toy companies are retesting toys they've already checked — and some retests have resulted in recalls, such as vinyl bibs and wooden art sets recalled by Toys "R" Us last month after new tests found excessive levels of lead. The retailer this month said it will use an independent laboratory to test every branded product.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. increased the number of toys it tests. Mattel promised to test the safety of Chinese-made products with its own laboratories or with company-certified labs. The toy store FAO Schwarz will require its suppliers to test all toys with an independent lab. Even the Walt Disney Co. said it will independently test toys that feature its characters.

STR and other toy testing firms won't release the names of the companies they work for, citing client privacy. But DeRagon said STR, which has two dozen locations around the world, counts 285 toy companies as active clients. Since Mattel's first recall this summer, STR has received 25 inquiries from toy companies and signed up at least half of those as clients, she said.

STR, which tests toys at six of its locations, does most of its testing in China and Hong Kong, where most toys are produced. That allows inspectors and testers tighter watch over the production process, DeRagon said. In companies with stringent quality controls, she said, inspectors will pull five samples from every production line every two hours. The lab in Enfield typically tests toys made in the United States or toys that have already been shipped to the U.S.

This time of year is always busy for toy companies as they rush to get their products on toy shelves by October ahead of the holiday shopping season. That makes it all the more important for toy manufacturers, designers, importers and toy stores to quickly ensure the safety of their products, DeRagon said.

"The timing is just really critical for the toy companies because it is coming up to the critical season," she said. "They have to make sure that the toys are going to be safe."