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Hot Topic: Toy Safety

In a recent Parents poll, nearly 60 percent of moms and dads said they worry about the safety of products they buy for their kids. And no wonder: The constant news stories about lead in toys and the recall of millions of dangerous trucks, dolls, and games are a stark reminder of the potential hazards in your child's toy box.

Of course, no one expects the U. S. government to be able to police every single product that is sold in America. But parents want manufacturers to ensure that the toys they sell won't hurt kids. And they expect that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) -- the federal agency charged with protecting the public from "unreasonable risks" of injuries associated with consumer products -- will do the job of making sure dangerous toys stay off store shelves. But clearly that hasn't been happening.

There is a silver lining to all the scary news: Manufacturers and retailers are stepping up efforts to safeguard products, and lawmakers are calling for increased power -- and funding -- for the CPSC. Here's a snapshot of the current facts and political acts.

The President

President Bush has called for measures to strengthen the CPSC's authority by making it illegal for companies to knowingly sell a recalled product; by authorizing the agency to issue follow-up recall notices; and by requiring companies to report detailed information about recalled products. Bush also wants to establish a certification program for companies with a track record for meeting safety standards. In addition, he's called for increased monitoring of countries and companies known for not meeting safety standards and increased penalties for violating U.S. import laws. He also wants more training for overseas inspectors.

Critics say: This is a good start, but the CPSC needs an infusion of more federal money -- and more manpower -- so it can adequately monitor the safety of products on the market.

Congress

The CPSC Reform Act of 2007, which at press time had been approved by a Senate committee, would more than double the agency's budget from $62.4 million to $141.7 million by 2015, increase staffing levels by nearly 20 percent, increase the maximum fine on companies from $1.8 million to $100 million, and give the agency greater authority. The bill also calls for more testing of children's products, bans lead in children's products, and (like the president's proposal) makes it illegal to knowingly sell a recalled product. Another version of the bill is in the works in the House of Representatives.

Critics say: In its current form, such a law would overburden the CPSC. They think that most of the responsibility for monitoring products for safety should be on toy manufacturers -- not on the government.

The States

Local political leaders are also taking action. Some states, including Maryland, Massachusetts, and California, are considering or have recently passed legislation to bolster lead testing and safety requirements for toys and jewelry made for children. Eight states currently have laws to prohibit the sale of any recalled items.

Critics say: While it's good that states are looking after their residents, it's best to have federal laws. Regulations that vary by state can be challenging for manufacturers and retailers.

The Toy Industry

Manufacturers have been very aggressive in issuing voluntary recalls when they learn about unsafe products. They have also announced that they will conduct more stringent testing of their products and impose rigorous standards on imported goods. Some retailers, such as Toys "R" Us, have called for further testing of the products they stock.

Critics say: Although these efforts are laudable, the proposed safeguards are inadequate. Manufacturers need another layer of enforcement by outsiders to ensure safety.

Who do you think should take responsibility? Share your thoughts by clicking on "comment" at the top of this article.

"We need to do more to ensure that American families have confidence in what they find on our store shelves. They have the right to expect the food they eat, or the medicines they take, or the toys they buy for their children to be safe."
-- President George W. Bush

"The only thing more frightening than these tainted toys from China falling into the hands of children is how powerless the very agency in charge of consumer protection is to stop it."
-- Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)

"We need to strengthen the testing and inspection procedures used to verify that all toy products, from all sources, comply with U.S. safety standards."
-- Daniel Grossman, chairman of the board of the Toy Industry Association of America

"It's clear that our consumer-product safety net has a hole in it the size of China."
-- Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.)

What you can do to help protect your children from dangerous products:

  • Subscribe to the CPSC's e-mail alerts at cpsc.gov.
  • Always return registration cards that accompany toys and other children's products, so the manufacturer can reach you if the product is recalled.
  • Read the warnings and directions that accompany children's products carefully, and assemble products exactly according to instructions. Check for broken parts.
  • If you live outside of Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Arkansas, Louisiana, Rhode Island, New Jersey, or Vermont -- the only states that ban the sale of recalled products -- write to your state legislators to urge them to prohibit the sale of dangerous children's products.
  • Write to your senators and congressperson to urge them to step up oversight and strengthen the CPSC, or to the toy industry association to let it know you expect it to better police its products.

  • 20 million: Toys recalled in 2007
  • 85: Percentage of American toys manufactured in China
  • $140.5 million: Budget (in today's dollars) of the CPSC when it was formed in 1973
  • $62.4 million: CPSC budget in 2007
  • 1975: Last time the CPSC modernized its testing labs
  • 61: Recalls issued by the CPSC last year
  • 786: Full-time employees of the CPSC in 1973
  • 420: Full-time employees of the CPSC today
  • 15,000: Types of products under the CPSC's jurisdiction

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Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the February 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

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