Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Focus on Common Sense

Good heavens, the mainstream media couldn't wait to jump all over the Mattel recall and scaring people with the notion that their children were at terrible risk from toys. It's not fear we need right now. It's common sense.

Dire predictions about the impact on the Holiday season and plastic saber rattling from outraged congressman Dick Durbin (R-Illinois) have created a lot of noise, but what's the substance here? Durbin's outrage stems from apparent ignorance. "We import toys from countries with different safety standards," he writes. Wrong. Wherever toys are produced, if they are to be sold in the U.S., they must meet U.S. safety standards. Furthermore, while Durbin is foaming at the mouth over the problems with China and the call for the CPSC to have the resources to do its job, he oversees the committee that has cut the agency's budgets for the past several years.

Much more believable is that the pro-business, anti-big-government stance of the Bush Administration has contributed to the reduction in government regulation. But, oops, when something happens the reaction is not to say, we've erred in under-funding the CPSC but that there is something wrong with China. Sorry, but that won't fly. You don't get to slash budgets and then divert blame. It makes soundbites that are good for a news cycle or two, but it's dishonest.

There are two recalls at issue.

The first involves lead paint. Lead paint has been banned since 1978, but according to Federal regulations, there are still acceptable levels of lead that can appear in paints and in other products. When that level is exceeded, it triggers a recall. That's a U.S. standard.

According to Mattel, and other sources, the non-conforming paint that was used applied to the toy in question by a sub-contractor's sub-contractor. The error was that the paint was not tested prior to being applied to the toys. However, the paint was found in the process of testing. The toys were recalled, and about 50% of them were contained before they made it to market. Could we not argue that, instead of failing, the system worked? Yes, it's a horrible and inexcusable thing that toys with lead paint made it into the market, but Mattel, which is said to have some of the best systems in the world for monitoring this kind of things did have a system failure. But the back-up systems found the non-conforming paint, and Mattel took action. Sure, there's damage done, but ultimately as bad as this is, consumers were protected.

Now, in and among all the lists of the dangers of lead paint, the reality is that exposure to lead is at an all-time low. While no level of lead paint is acceptable, understanding how lead can get into a child's system should quell some fears. First of all, lead cannot be transmitted into a system through touching it. Some would say even licking or mouthing it would not be sufficient. The paint needs to be ingested and metabolized for any toxic effect. Lead paint is not good, but the risk is lessened.

So what should parents do? Well, exert common sense first and foremost. There is no paint that children should be ingesting. If your toys are worn or broken, take them away. If the toys are on the CPSC Recall list, take them away and follow the directions.

We have heard from many parents that the RC2 Thomas the Tank recall has been handled very well. They are praising the company for being responsive.

Now, about magnets.

The CPSC has issued warnings about the dangers of magnets. They are to be taken seriously. However, it's important to note that with 9.5 million Polly Pocket dolls that have been recalled in the U.S., there have been no injuries. What's more, the injuries that do occur have been with kids who are too young to play with them, and with children who have been using magnets to simulate tongue piercings.

Mattel has addressed the design flaw, and any toy with a magnet manufactured from January 2007 forward will be much more secure.

But for parents, what can you do? First and foremost, monitor play. Do not allow kids who are 3 or younger to have toys that are not graded for them. It takes a second for an accident to happen, but it's important to be vigilant. We all know that kids can get into things so quickly it would make your head spin.

Ultimately, logic and rational thought dictate that Mattel and all toy companies are doing everything in their power to ensure toy safety. This is a bump in the road--and a serious one at that--but the result of increased control and oversight should yield even safer toys in the future. While it's hard to take the longer view where your kids and their safety are concerned, consider this: One of my father's favorite toys in the 1920s was a soldier making kit. It included a bunsen burner and a little pot in which he melted, yes, lead, and poured it into molds. No one knew it was a problem at the time.

Today, toys are safer than at any time in history. And companies are trying to make them safer. Let's not get carried away with the emotionalism and fear that something like the Mattel recall creates. Let's not be quick to blame China, but instead, let's look to our business practices and see how they can be improved. That is realistic progress that acknowledges the global market for toys.