Common Sense, Toy Safety and the Law

By Christopher Byrne

This column was never intended to be political in nature. Yet, if we are going to raise our kids effectively, we need to instill in them both critical thinking and common sense. We have so little power over what happens outside our homes and our immediate spheres of influence, but what we can do is help our kids to deal with the world as they find it as rational, thinking adults. When we can bypass the emotionalism and focus on the facts, we make better choices.

Following a flood of worries and concerns about lead in toys, not to mention some media-hyped hysteria, Congress passed a bill then President Bush signed into law that severely limited lead content. On the surface, this is a good thing. Lead is a known toxin when it’s ingested in quantity over time. However, the fear of lead poisoning, fomented by recalls in 2007, was the triumph of emotion over science. Yes, the recalled toys violated the law and should have been recalled. It’s probably a good thing that there are more stringent controls on testing.

At the same time, there have never been any reports of lead poisoning as a result of playing with toys. Lead must be ingested or aspirated and get into the blood system to create any toxicity. Touching something with lead in it and touching the mouth or eyes will not transfer lead period. Otherwise the paint on your cell phone, the crystal you use, the flatware you pick up and any number of other daily encounters we have with lead would have poisoned us all by now. You are at greater risk from inhaling the lead in exhaust (yes, it’s there even in “lead free” gasoline), than by touching a toy.

Still, the passion to protect inspired all kinds of bloviating and sound bite production and it led to a law, which while well-intentioned adds costs to your mass produced toys (as much as 15 percent in the new testing environment) and severely straps artisans who make handmade toys. As described in The New York Times, the costs of testing risks putting many of these people out of business.

This is why we applaud the work of The Handmade Toy Alliance to modify the current legislation to allow testing of component materials rather than the finished toys. Though I take issue with the purple prose of the organization (In this day and age that seems inescapable in trying to be heard), they make many good points. This is admittedly a very small piece of the toy industry, but why should people lose their livelihood and consumers lose the choice of some wonderful products when science doesn’t support the legislation?

I would urge you to contact your Congressman and your Senators and support the amendment of this law. Despite the protestations of advocacy group Kids in Danger whose site combines good information on recalls with fear-mongering and inaccurate claims about safety, amending this law will not open the door to allowing manufacturers to create less stringent controls on lead. In fact, we should encourage Congress to exempt toys made with wood and beeswax, for instance, from the legislation. (And common sense would tell us that there’s no profit for a toy company to do anything that could even be perceived as harming children. No one makes money by injuring their consumers.)

The reality is that consumers of any products face more risk from product design flaws than lead. This is borne out by the recall numbers. More importantly, inattentive care and failing to follow assembly instructions cause more injuries than lead. That’s an easy stat because there are no lead-related poisonings of children from toys on record.

And yes, this includes books. How many children lick the pages of books printed before 1985 with ink that included lead? I have spent time with hundreds of children throughout my career, I’ve never seen or heard of one chowing down on “Goodnight Moon.”

There are many elements of the CPSIA law that are supportable. Greater diligence on testing, despite increased costs is good for both industry and consumers because it increases responsibility and confidence in quality. I also support the limitations on yard sales and second hand stores. I hate waste, and I have a collection of antique books myself (none of which I have ever felt compelled to taste), but with toys, the more prudent choice is buying new. You have the advantage of a warranty, and the toy has been tested to meet all current standards.

Getting the right balance of regulation and freedom takes time. That’s why our system allows laws to be amended. What began as an emotional response to a fearful episode can now be tempered by an understanding of science and the real level of threat and/or risk involved.

In the meantime, as parents and caregivers, we need to try to be less emotional and more rational and practice common sense.

Particularly at this time of year as kids are about to have a new infusion of playthings, it’s probably wise to revisit some of the perennial tips for toy safety:

  • Make sure the toys are appropriate for the age of the child. Age gradings are for safety purposes.
  • Know that anything will go in the mouth of children under 3.
  • When there are older and younger children in the home, make sure that the younger ones can’t get the toys for the older children.
  • Check toys regularly for signs of wear and remove or replace toys that are damaged.
  • Don’t load up cribs with toys.
  • Put toys away. The number one toy-related injury is still from people tripping over them.
  • Read and follow all assembly instructions carefully.
  • Supervise play.

When all of these work together in concert with sane and practical regulation, we actually have greater safety and control than any time in history. Sounds good to me.

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