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Playing with Fire?...

Playing with Fire? Toxic Toys

I’m watching my almost-two-year-old play with a couple of Thomas and Friends trains and wondering if I should take them away now, even though they weren’t among the ones recalled in August 2007 by RC2 corp. After all, they’ve got magnets on them strong enough to pull two trains together and maybe he could break a couple of them off and swallow them, potentially causing life-threatening tears or blockages in his intestines.

While I’m at it, I need to go through my three kids’ toy bin and sort through all the little plastic and metal things in there. Some of the stuff doesn’t even say where it was made. Who knows what kind of paint is on it, or what sort of plastic or metal it’s all made from?

And while the news right now is about massive recalls of recently produced items, including nineteen million Mattel toys, what about all the things made over the last several years that my kids have acquired and are still playing with? I don’t have great confidence that the testing was any more rigorous then than it has been this year. And I doubt the toy companies or the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) are going back and testing the old stuff.

Our kids get toys everywhere they go and many of them are meant to be disposable, played with briefly and then broken or thrown away. They get gifts for birthdays and holidays, of course. Visiting relatives who love them often bring them things when they come from out of town. But that is just the beginning.

There is a veritable arms race of “party favors,” usually some quickly broken piece of plastic. Parents evidently feel compelled to outdo one another by providing their young guests with the most swag, precisely coordinated with their party themes.

My oldest son went to a week-long science camp this summer where he was given at least three plastic toys every day. On the last day he came home with a grocery bag full of toys. Most of these items had some tenuous relation to the rockets and space topic of the camp, but when I asked about a baggy of small plastic beads, for which I could not discern any scientific purpose, my son said, “Oh, I got those for being good.”

Despite my best efforts, we are swimming in a sea of little pieces of plastic.

So, as we read one report after another about lead and dangerously shoddy construction in children’s products, how can parents and the people who care about children respond?

We should urge our representatives to pass a bill proposed in 2006 by Congress that would ban detectable levels of lead in products for children under age six. Fines for offenders should create a real deterrent for companies that manufacture and market kids’ products. According to the New York Times, the CPSC’s budget has shrunk 10 percent in the last two years. It is woefully lacking in inspectors to monitor the billions of dollars worth of products for which it is responsible. There is a groundswell of support for strengthening the Commission’s oversight capabilities and we should keep pressure on Congress and the White House to follow through.

But while we are demanding that our government and the corporations that market to kids meet a higher standard in protecting children, we should also stop and look at all the stuff our kids have and think about whether we’d be better off without it. The junk we throw away will probably be sitting in the landfill slowly leeching toxins into the ground and water until our great great grandchildren are faced with this same dilemma. And think what all that lead is doing to the Chinese workers who are painting it onto our toys.

Anybody who has watched kids play knows that they often prefer pots and pans or a cardboard box to commercial toys. A book makes a great birthday present and doesn’t take up much space on a shelf; and if there’s cake and other kids to play with at a party, nobody will miss the party favors.

Related Story: Toys that Kill: Putting Lead into Spotlight

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