Heavy Metal Peril

For one who was raised drinking water from lead pipes, breathing the fumes of leaded gasoline, and playing aggressively with lead soldiers, I always get a little skeptical of lead scares. Which is why it’s better to have health and safety policy made by publicly-minded scientists and not by the mutterings of grumpy old guys.

Nevertheless, there’s something about the combination of lead and Chinese in the same scare that ought to make you examine the claims about lead paint in Chinese-manufactured toys carefully. It’s kind of like linking the words German and measles, putting the emphasis on the alleged source of the problem rather than the extent of damage done. Even more so when children’s health is involved.

Although lead poisoning is a very real health danger, paint on toys is nowhere near the major cause. It’s old, lead-based paint in houses—more often than not houses of the poor—that raises lead levels dangerously. According to a Los Angeles Times article, “In about 85% of lead-poisoning cases, health officials could trace the source to deteriorating paint where the child lives or spends time.” And, of course, the major hazards of toys come not from the composition of the toys, but from swallowing, throwing, and mostly, falling off them. Those account for 400,000 injuries a year and a few dozen deaths.

Dangerous Factories

But it’s also well to consider where the greatest danger of Chinese lead paint lies—on the workers. Even in the United States , according to OSHA, “Lead overexposure is one of the most common overexposures found in the industry and is a leading cause of workplace illness.” You can imagine what it’s like in the more marginal factories in the South China industrial belt. Protective clothing and respiratory equipment? Forget it. Blood testing? Rarely. Union protection? No. Government inspector? Bought off. Western journalists have loads of video footage of Chinese workers, some still children, breaking apart lead-soldered circuit boards. Foundry workers and, undoubtedly, paint makers, work in air that’s thick with lead dust.

But none of these documented hazards set the public’s blood boiling like paint on imported toys—an issue that is as much about U.S. domestic politics and culture as toxicology.

Taking politics first, the December Consumer Reports quotes former Consumer Product Safety Commission chair Ann Brown. The CPSC under Bush, she said, has “been neutered to the point of uselessness.” Going on, Consumer Reports reminds readers that in 2002, Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) issued a report concluding that the CPSC rejected lead poisoning experts for their advisory committee and chose lead industry friends instead. But you already either knew that or assumed it.

Too Many Toys

In about a year, though, Bush will be out, the CPSC will probably be in somewhat more scrupulous hands, and the problem will still remain. That’s because the average kid has loads and loads of toys. Although government figures say Americans spent $22.5 billion on toys, exclusive of video games, in 2007, no one knows just how many each kid has. Neither the Toy Industry Association nor the NPD Group, which does market research on toys, could offer a definitive answer. Suffice it to say it’s many dozens.

In order for Americans of moderate means—which means most of us—to meet their children’s raging demand for toys, the price of said toys has to be low. And cheap toys means cheaply-made toys. And that means made where labor costs are low and product safety laws remain on paper and not in the factory. The combination of cutthroat manufacturing and inadequate safety enforcement—either in the producing or consuming countries—means that danger is built into the system.

Of course American parents must work to protect their children from all preventable hazards. But if they really want to do so, they would have to buy only more expensive, better-made toys—and that means far fewer of them. And they have to demand that international labor treaties—which are on the books—be enforced here, in China, and wherever toys are made. At the moment, it seems as though blaming the Chinese and product safety enforcement is the best we can do. It’s not enough.

Alec Dubro, creator of The Washington Pox, is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.