Toy-makers, clothing manufacturers and other companies selling products for young children are submitting samples to independent laboratories for safety tests. But the nation's largest toy maker, Mattel, isn't being required to do the same.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently, and quietly, granted Mattel's request to use its own labs for testing that is required under a law Congress passed last summer in the wake of a rash of recalls of toys contaminated by lead. Six of those toys were produced by Mattel Inc., and its subsidiary Fisher-Price.
The new law sets strict limits for lead, lead paint and chemicals known as phthalates. It mandates third-party testing for companies, big and small, making products geared for children 12 and under.
"It's really ironic that the company that was a principal source of the problem" is now getting favorable treatment from the government, said Michael Green, executive director of the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, Calif.
Mattel is getting a competitive advantage, Green said, because smaller companies must pay independent labs to do the tests. Testing costs can run from several hundred dollars to many thousands, depending on the test and the toy or product.
Mattel says it demonstrated to the CPSC that its products go through rigorous safety tests. Spokeswoman Lisa Marie Bongiovanni also said Mattel has an appropriate "firewall" in place to ensure test results are protected from corporate influence.
"We have extremely qualified people who work feet away from our production lines," Bongiovanni said. "It allows us to do more testing than any other toy company out there."
Lead can cause irreversible brain damage. The six Mattel-related recalls in 2007 involved more than 2 million toys. They were part of a slew of recalls by several dozen companies. The recalls frightened parents and pressure came to bear on Congress to pass the new law, known as CPSIA. Mattel and Fisher-Price have not had any lead recalls since.
In June, Mattel agreed to pay a $2.3 million civil penalty for violating the lead paint ban.
CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said Mattel proved its case that its labs were insulated from undue corporate influence.
Similar requests from other companies that want to do their own testing are pending at the agency. The CPSC would not name the companies.
The agency approved seven Mattel labs as "firewalled third party laboratories" — the first to get that designation under the new law, which permits the "firewall" exception. Mattel pushed hard for the firewalled labs provision when Congress was considering the legislation. The company spent more than $1 million in 2008 on lobbying, according to federal records.
Mattel's "firewalled" labs are in Mexico, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and California.
CPSC issued no press release about the 3-0 vote in Mattel's favor, and information on the vote was not posted on the commission's Web site section pertaining to the CPSIA law.
Mattel says its situation is unique because it owns its production factories outside the U.S. and can do the required safety testing there. Mattel's Bongiovanni says the company also ships out some product to third-party labs, something it's been doing for years.
While Congress mandated the third-party testing, the commission in January said it would delay enforcement for a year of some of the testing requirements for phthalates and lead content — though many companies are doing the tests anyway.