Let’s return now to the story of Thomas the Tank Engine and the lead paint.
Back in June, the company that manufactures the toy trains based on Thomas books and videos announced that it had been making many of those trains with lead paint. Lead paint, if ingested, tends to cause brain damage. So the company — the RC2 Corporation, which is based in Illinois and makes the trains in China — asked parents to mail back the affected toys.
But RC2 could hardly have done a worse job of handling the situation. First it asked its customers to pay the shipping costs of returning the toys. Meanwhile, executives at both RC2 and HIT Entertainment, which owns the Thomas brand, hid from public view. They never explained why their safety checks had failed — or why they deserved to be trusted now. They still haven’t.
“They just really bungled this thing,” D. J. Nordquist, a mother of three young children in Northern Virginia, told me. Ms. Nordquist had asked RC2 for a refund on her recalled trains, mostly on principle, she said, but also to cover the $39 she spent on lead tests for her children. RC2 refused. Instead, it sent her and other customers replacement trains, as well as an additional toy train as a bonus “gift.”
Now, here is where the story gets truly incredible. In September, RC2 recalled five more toys because of lead. One was a gray boxcar called the Toad vehicle. The Toad vehicle, it turned out, was one of the trains that RC2 had mailed out as a gift. That’s right. To make up for putting lead in its toys, RC2 sent children ... a free lead-contaminated toy!
This second Thomas recall went largely overlooked, though, because by September — with Mattel recalling millions of toys — lead paint seemed to be the norm for the toy industry. As Sean McGowan, a toy industry analyst, said in a front-page article in this newspaper, “If I went down the shelves of Wal-Mart and tested everything, I’m going to find serious problems.”
After reading that quote, a colleague and I decided to do exactly what Mr. McGowan suggested. We bought dozens of toys at Wal-Mart and a couple of other stores and took them to a laboratory for testing. The idea, simply, was to figure out how many other toys might be as dangerous as Thomas the Tank Engine.
“Red like a stop sign, yellow like a school bus,” Martin Bennett, a retired compliance officer from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, was telling my colleague, Amy Schoenfeld, as they were walking down the aisle of a Wal-Mart on Long Island.
We had asked Mr. Bennett to come along and point out toys that might be suspicious. Red and yellow were most likely to contain lead, he explained, perhaps because lead helps keep paint bright. He also pointed us toward toys made in China and other countries with weak safety rules, and he encouraged us to shop at lesser-known chains as well as Wal-Mart.
To stack the deck, we did everything Mr. Bennett suggested. We wanted to maximize the chances that we would find toys with more lead paint than government standards permit — more than 600 parts per million of lead — just as the recalled Thomas trains and Mattel toys had.
We then drove our stash of about 50 toys to a laboratory in Enfield, Conn., run by Specialized Technology Resources. There, the lab’s employees used a razor blade to scrape some paint off each toy, added a chemical solution and put the chip in a microwave oven. The resulting liquid was placed in a big machine called an atomic absorption spectrometer to analyze lead content.
Any guess as to how many of our toys contained more lead paint than the law allows?
Only five items had any detectable lead: three necklaces from a vending machine at a Shop-Rite in Brooklyn (which had up to 27 parts per million) and two pieces of jewelry from a store called National Wholesale Liquidators (up to 49 parts). All of our Wal-Mart toys were lead-free.
I see two big lessons from the experiment. The first is that making toys without lead is not difficult. Most of the toy industry is already doing it right.
If anything, the standard of 600 parts per million is too lax. Numerous studies have shown that even moderate lead levels in children’s blood can do real damage — an average loss of something like five I.Q. points for a child with the highest “acceptable” level. The American Academy of Pediatrics says the standard should be 40 parts per million.
“No one has ever found any evidence of a threshold below which lead has no effect,” Richard L. Canfield, a developmental psychologist at Cornell, said. “There is no reason to have it in toys.”
Fortunately, given the relatively limited scale of the problem, the solution doesn’t need to involve some huge effort to stop lead toys at the border. Tougher standards, harsher penalties and more random testing should do the trick. That would put the responsibility on companies.
Which brings us back to Thomas — and the second moral of the story. The companies involved in the recent recalls aren’t simply the unlucky ones that got caught. Either out of carelessness or a misplaced cost-cutting zeal, they are the ones that didn’t make the effort to keep their toys safe.
When Ms. Nordquist first had her toy-chewing, 17-month old daughter tested for lead this year, the results showed that she had more lead in her blood than any parent should want. When the girl was retested recently, months after the Thomas trains had been put out of her reach, the level had fallen significantly. Two tests prove nothing, Ms. Nordquist notes, but they are enough to make a mother angry.
I called Curtis W. Stoelting, RC2’s chief executive, and Peter J. Henseler, its president, to ask why parents should have faith that RC2’s new safety measures would work better than its old ones. Neither executive called me back. Instead, representatives from two public relations agencies working for RC2 sent me a memo that almost hilariously avoided most of my questions.
Ms. Nordquist had a similar experience. After mailing her recalled trains to RC2 and enclosing a letter requesting a refund, she received an e-mail message signed, “Consumer Services.” It didn’t acknowledge her refund request but promised that replacement trains were on the way. The message also thanked her for the trust she had placed in Thomas.
“I guess you didn’t bother to read the letter I enclosed,” Ms. Nordquist wrote back. “Any trust I had with your firm is gone. I do not want any replacements. I want a refund. You have endangered my children.”
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