Federal regulators sought Tuesday to restore parents' confidence in toy safety, urging vigilance during the busy holiday shopping season with little mention of lead hazards that have prompted a record number of toy recalls.
Consumer groups, though, warned that they found numerous cases where toys that posed a choking hazard or lead danger had improperly made it to store shelves. "Consumers looking for toys still face an industry full of safety loopholes," said the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Three days before the start of the busy shopping season, Nancy Nord, acting chief of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, issued safety tips in a two-page release that called on parents to "stay informed" about safety risks by reading product warning labels and signing up for direct e-mail notification of recalls at Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Among the biggest toy hazards cited by CPSC:
"Toys today are undergoing more inspection and more intense scrutiny than every before," Nord said in a statement, citing CPSC's "daily commitment to keeping consumers safe 365 days a year."
The agency noted that the Chinese government recently had signed agreements to help prevent lead-painted toys from reaching the U.S., and that the CPSC was "taking the action needed to remove violative products from the marketplace."
Consumer groups weren't so sure.
In its 57-page annual survey, U.S. PIRG agreed that toys with small magnets as well as small parts that pose choking hazards create significant risks.
Between 1990 and 2005, at least 166 children choked to death on children's products, accounting for more than half of all toy-related deaths at a rate of about 10 deaths per year, the group said. Several times this year potentially dangerous toys were sold without the required warning labels of possible choking risks while the CPSC also has been slow to issue public warnings, U.S. PIRG
U.S. PIRG and Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Environmental Health also pointed to continuing risks involving lead-tainted toys, millions of which were recalled this year. They cited weak laws that only clearly ban lead in paint.
In a four-day investigation of toys it purchased at stores such as Target Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and The Disney Store, the Center for Environmental Health found that 9 out of the 100 toys it
purchased had high lead levels of 900 parts per million or more.
Another six toys had levels higher than 100 parts per million, the approximate trace level that some consumer groups would like to see as the limit whether in paint, coatings or any toys, jewelry or other products used by children under 12.
"The toy companies and their retailers and the government aren't doing enough to protect kids from these toys," said Charles Margulis, CEH's spokesman. "They had massive recalls this summer and keep telling us how much they're doing.
"Yet we're still finding these toys with high levels," he said. "Why is it we are the ones that are getting this information out to parents and not the government and not the toy companies?"
The findings come as both the House and Senate consider legislation that would overhaul the product safety system by substantially increasing CPSC's budget, raising the cap on civil penalties for violations and giving the CPSC authority to provide quicker notice to the public of potentially dangerous products.
The measures also seek to ban officials at federal regulating agencies from taking trips financed by industries they oversee. Both Nord and her predecessor as chairman, Hal Stratton, accepted free trips worth thousands of dollars at industry expense.
On Monday, California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued 20 companies in state court, including Mattel Inc. and Toys "R" Us, claiming they sold toys containing "unlawful quantities of lead." The move follows major recalls of toys, lunch boxes, children's jewelry and other goods during the last year by CPSC.