Stateline Story

States Lead Feds in Toy Safety

Reacting to an increase in toy recalls and consumer complaints, five states have targeted tainted toys in new laws that in some way regulate toy sales in their states.

In total, 29 states have pursued legislation on toy safety, with 20 of those states taking steps to ban four toxic substances sometimes used in toy manufacturing: lead, phthalates, bisphenol-a, and cadmium.

Washington state became the latest to legislate toy safety this week when Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) on Tuesday (April 1) signed into law a ban on all of these toxins, except bisphenol-a, in toys. The Washington law comes after a California law passed last fall that bans just phthalates in toys.

Michigan's law, passed last December, is less specific, banning all toxins in toys, without naming them, but it specifically outlaws lead in children's jewelry. New Jersey's law, passed last August, and Oregon's law, passed earlier this month, block the sale of recalled toys.

Because it is inexpensive, lead traditionally has been used to make toys, but has been found in recent years to cause developmental problems in children. Phthalates, a chemical often added in plastic toys to make them more flexible, may cause reproductive problems, as may bisphenol-a, often also found in baby bottles. Plastic coatings and paint often contain cadmium, shown by studies to increase the risk of certain types of cancers and affect development, sensory-motor skills and hormones in children.

Besides the state laws that aim at banning substances or the resale of recalled toys, 14 states have introduced legislation that would force the disclosure of toxins in toys to alert the public.

The toy industry, meanwhile, says abiding by such a wide range of laws is challenging.

"If 50 states are going to enact 50 different laws, it's very difficult for any industry to follow those 50 different guidelines," said Rob Herriott, director of international relations and regulatory affairs for the Toy Industry Association . "We're asking for a harmonized standard throughout the 50 states," he said, suggesting that might be a federal standard.

Congress has not yet passed an updated federal Consumer Product Safety Act, which addresses new toy safety measures. The Senate version, passed in March, would ban in toys lead and phthalates, require disclosure of toxins, enforce new stricter testing and increase the budget and staff for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the federal agency that inspects toys and enforces safety standards .

The House's version, passed in December, is weaker, banning just lead, providing a smaller budget increase for the commission and imposing less harsh testing.

But as the House and Senate work out the different versions of the act, "states need to step up to the plate," said Doug Farquhar of the National Conference of State Legislatures , a bipartisan group that advocates for state governments before the federal government.

Joan Lawrence, vice president for standards and government affairs for the Toy Industry Association, disagrees. "We all want products to be safe, but varying state legislation will lead to a patchwork of laws that will drive safe toys from the market," she said.

"Federal legislation, on the other hand, would greatly increase consumer product safety and enforcement - and do this more effectively and efficiently than varying state laws," Lawrence said.

Following her state's lead, U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) sponsored an amendment banning phthalates that passed in the Senate's version of the updated act. Phthalates were outlawed in 14 countries and the European Union, which banned the chemical in toys in 1999.

"Europe and California have already stepped forward and made sure that toys laden with phthalates are kept away from the hands and mouths of young children," Feinstein said at the time. "America's parents should be able to have the same peace of mind that the toys they buy for their children are safe."

But Herriott, of the Toy Industry Association, said that political pressure has trumped science and that phthalates in toys are safe.

"There were products that broke the rules and they came off the shelves," Herriott said. "Standards were broken by companies. The standards themselves aren't broken."

The states' actions have encouraged large toy retailers to change their policies. Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us have developed stricter toy testing standards and have asked their manufacturers to reduce or eliminate lead, phthalates and other toxins to apply California's standard to their toys nationwide.

"We know national legislation is pending, but toy orders for this year are taking place, which prompted the need for us to provide suppliers guidance now," Laura Phillips, vice president of toys for Wal-Mart, said earlier this year. "We believe these new requirements help move all toy suppliers in the right direction."

But while large chains can request manufacturers to adopt these rules and can withstand harsher testing, smaller retailers and manufacturers could be severely hurt financially by the new state rules, Lawrence said.

The number of toy recalls jumped from 37 in 2003 to 120 in 2007. There have been 30 toy recalls this year, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission . Of the 30, only six were sold in Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us. Most of the retailers that end up needing to pull toys off their shelves are small toy suppliers.

"We do need toy safety laws," said Allen Rickert, the owner of Top Ten Toys, a Seattle toy store. "But new laws may end up making it harder for smaller companies."