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Maine's message to toymakers is clear: Get the lead out

May 25, 2008

Elisa Boxer-Cook packed up 10 different toys from her son's Thomas & Friends collection after the manufacturer discovered excessive levels of lead in the paint last year and issued a voluntary recall.

To make things up to the family, RC2 Corp. sent a bonus toy for her son, Evan.

''Then there was a recall of that,'' said Boxer-Cook, who lives in Scarborough. ''It was crazy. It doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in the toys that we're buying.''

A newly passed Maine law aims to prevent such mishaps in the future by establishing the country's strictest lead standard for children's products. Toymakers with products that exceed the threshold of 90 parts per million of the neurotoxin could face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

Environmental health advocates hope that companies will review their inventory and start to remove offending products from Maine store shelves before the law takes effect in July 2009.

Toymakers say they will follow state laws in Maine and elsewhere - with reservations.

Maine's law is one of several passed this year, each with different requirements that industry officials say will make it difficult for companies to do interstate commerce. The companies would prefer that Congress create a national standard this year that would trump state efforts.

A proposal before the U.S. House-Senate conference committee would reduce the lead limit for the paint on toys from 600 ppm to 100 ppm. It is part of a bill aimed at reforming the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which was accused of poor oversight amid last year's recall of millions of toys coated with lead paint in Chinese factories.

The federal legislation would give toymakers three years to adjust to the changes, rather than having to deal with the one year allowed by Maine and the Washington state statute, which also has a 90 ppm threshold that would take effect in July 2009.

''One year is not a lot in the toy business cycle,'' said Kathleen McHugh, executive director of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association.

Barring a change at the federal level, environmental health analyst Doug Farquhar expected that toy manufacturers and retailers would be ''extra sensitive'' about what they sell in Maine.

''I think they'll redirect more resources there, and say, 'Make sure you do not sell this to those people in Maine who are passing laws and really looking for something,''' said Farquhar, who directs the environmental health program at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Farquhar said the industry does not want another situation like Illinois, where the attorney general's office has been testing toys and fining violators. It also is advocating for a bill that would put warning labels on toys with more than 40 ppm of lead - the trace amount recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Maine's law does not ask its attorney general, or any state agency, for that matter, to buy and test products. But state officials say they might not have to do that to be alerted to potential violations.

State toxicologist Andy Smith, who oversees the state's childhood lead poisoning prevention programs, said voluntary recalls issued by the toymakers could lead to investigations by the state and fines as high as $50,000 for repeat violators.

''You could say we have now given teeth to the voluntary recalls,'' Smith said.

Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, said organizations like his may go out and spot-check the products. Web sites such as www.healthytoys.org <http://www.healthytoys.org> , a project of The Ecology Center, also list products with high levels of lead and other chemicals.

Belliveau, who worked on the bill with sponsor Rep. Jill Conover, D-Oakland, said he expects the toy industry to regulate itself.

''Competitors will test products from other companies to keep them honest in the marketplace,'' Belliveau said.

Maine's standard would not only apply to lead in paint, but also to lead used as a stabilizing agent in plastics for soft lunch bags, backpacks and jewelry. Environmental health experts are particularly concerned about cheap, little-known brands sold at discount stores that are not subject to testing and recalls.

The law would exempt certain electronic toys from meeting the threshold. Components such as circuit boards may contain lead, but state legislators decided they were not accessible to children.

Boxer-Cook, who teaches journalism at the University of Southern Maine, said Maine's attempt to reduce children's exposure to lead was reassuring. But she could not understand why lead had to be used at all and was saddened that her son, now 5, has grown wary of toys. Last year, he also had to turn over his Silly Parts Talking Elmo toy made by Fisher-Price.

''A lot of times, he'll ask, 'Can we buy this toy, or does this have lead in it?'''

Staff Writer Josie Huang can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

jhuang@pressherald.com


Posted on 5/25/2008 (Archive on 6/15/2008)

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