Despite a new law that bans six chemicals from children's products and lowers the lead limit for them, a public interest group has found a number of toys at major retailers that contain the chemicals and illegal amounts of lead.
In a report released Tuesday called "Trouble in Toyland," the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) found that while many manufacturers and retailers are complying with the new law, a handful are not, and it is hard for consumers to tell the difference.
"We have seen substantial progress over the last year because of the new law and new leadership at the Consumer Product Safety Commission," said Elizabeth Hitchcock, public health advocate at U.S. PIRG. "At the same time, we are seeing some products that slip through the cracks."
For 24 years, U.S. PIRG has released a report about toy safety at the start of the holiday season. This is the first report since Congress approved broad changes to consumer safety laws in 2008, in response to dangerously high levels of lead in thousands of toys imported from China in the past several years.
Concerns have also been growing about a family of chemicals known as phthalates, which are widely found in plastic toys and have been linked to reproductive disorders and other health problems. Congress overwhelmingly voted to outlaw phthalates from children's products, as well as to significantly reduce the amount of lead allowed in them.
U.S. PIRG sent 15 children's products to an independent laboratory for testing. Four were found to have excessive lead levels, and two contained phthalates. For example, a charm made by Claire's boutiques was 71 percent lead by weight, when the legal limit is .03 percent. A cloth book for toddlers, "Big Rex and Friends," which was purchased at Toys R Us, contained 0.19 percent lead. After being notified by U.S. PIRG, Toys R Us stopped selling the book, but it is still available through other retailers.
A Pretty Princess Puppy Purse from Claire's boutiques had a level of 5.4 percent of one of the banned phthalates, while an Elmo lunch bag made by Fast Forward New York had a level of 7.2 percent of another banned phthalate.
On Monday, Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, told reporters that "parents and grandparents can have more confidence this year than ever before" because of the new law. Toy recalls have dropped from 162 last year to 38 so far this year, she said. Recalls of children's products with excessive lead levels have decreased from 85 last year to 15 this year, she said.
Since she became chairman of the commission in June, Tenenbaum has traveled twice to China and Southeast Asia to discuss with her Asian counterparts "how to build safety into toys." The Chinese government shuttered several toy factories because of concerns about product safety, she said, adding: "The Chinese are taking toy safety very seriously."
Still, shoppers have no way of telling whether the products on store shelves comply with the law, Hitchcock said. "To take a product that you buy and send it off to a laboratory costs some money and is not something that parents can or should have to do with a product," she said.
U.S. PIRG is launching a tool with toy safety tips that consumers can access via cellphone, Hitchcock said.
The new law requires manufacturers to send their products to independent laboratories to verify that they meet the standards, but that provision will not take effect until February. Still, the statute makes it illegal for manufacturers to create children's products that violate the standards and for retailers to sell them.
The group's report also examined toys that pose a choking hazard to young children and those that make excessive noise, which can cause hearing loss. The report and the mobile site are available on the U.S. PIRG Web site.