Toxic Toys: Game Over — State Must Act Where Feds Won't

March 30, 2008
published in the Hartford Courant

With toxic toys flooding American markets and with corporate and federal leaders doing little to address the crisis, it's time for Connecticut to stand up with other states and say enough is enough. The General Assembly will get a chance to do just that when the Act Banning Children's Products Containing Lead, Phthalates, or Bisphenol-A comes up for a vote. It should jump on the chance.

Although the bill was introduced this legislative session, the problem of toxic toys is nothing new. Two years ago, a Minnesota boy died of a swollen brain after swallowing a lead-laced bracelet made by Reebok and imported from China. Last year, Mattel was forced to recall more than 25 million Chinese-manufactured toys after they were found to contain dangerously high levels of lead. A recent study by the Washington Toxics Coalition found high levels of phthalates in many of the products they tested, all the way up to 47 percent phthalates by weight for one green ball purchased at a Toys "R" Us.

With such an alarming threat to public safety on our hands, what have our federal leaders done to address the issue? Appallingly little. Last year, not only did the Bush administration fail to tighten restrictions on chemicals of concern in children's products, but Congress also conspicuously botched a chance to increase the budget of the U.S. Consumer Product and Safety Commission, the agency responsible for monitoring the safety of goods imported into and sold in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the commission has seen its budget slashed by more than half and its port inspection staff cut from 40 to 15 since 1985, a period during which imports from China have spiked by nearly 3,900 percent. Amid this crisis of legitimacy, the commission has failed to lower its dangerously high lead content safety threshold of 600 parts per million, despite strenuous warnings from the American Academy of Pediatrics that any level of lead above 40 ppm poses a serious threat to children.

In such a vacuum of responsible leadership at the national level, action at the state level is all the more urgent. More than two dozen states have introduced legislation to stem the influx of toxic toys. Connecticut's proposed bill — approved earlier this session by the Environment Committee — is among the strongest.

For starters, it would ban lead in children's products in levels above the academy's recommended 40 ppm threshold and would require that manufacturers submit their products to third-party testing in order to verify their compliance with the limit.

The bill would also specifically ban a class of chemicals known as phthalates and bisphenol-A in levels above 100 ppm. The two chemicals are commonly used to soften or reinforce plastics and have been known for years to interfere with hormone development, creating the potential for malformed reproductive organs as well as neural and behavioral disorders.

Above and beyond the bans it places on lead and endochrine disruptors, one of the strongest attributes of the proposed act is the increased access to information with which it would endow state regulatory agencies. The bill would create an interagency commission to maintain a list of "chemicals of high concern" and to participate in an interstate clearinghouse to identify safer alternatives to those chemicals.

If the Connecticut legislature rises to the occasion and passes the proposed bill banning toxic children's products, it would fill a gaping void left by the absence of federal action on toxic toys. With legislation pending in dozens of other states, passage of the bill could spark a wave of state-level actions that would bring the country that much closer to a comprehensive solution to this pressing national problem.

J. Mijin Cha is the senior environmental policy specialist with Progressive States Network, a national nonprofit policy group that promotes legislation.