Toying with children's safety

The 213-piece Imaginarium coloring set sold at Toys R Us includes felt pens, crayons, oil pastel markers, watercolors, a mixing palette, a brush, a ruler, a pencil and a pencil sharpener.

And lead -- possibly enough to permanently disable a kid.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced Thursday that because of excessive lead levels in the packaging and contents, Toys R Us Inc. is voluntarily recalling about 27,000 of the coloring sets, which were manufactured in China. And that's fine.

What's not fine is that the coloring sets were for sale for nearly a year -- starting in October -- before anyone noticed that they're dangerous. What's also not fine is that once again consumers have had to rely on the honor system for a company to pull a potentially harmful product from the market.

And what's really not fine is that China is proving to be a decidedly unreliable partner in the shadowy world of outsourced manufacturing by U.S. companies. Other recent recalls and alerts involving Chinese-made products have included toothpaste, pet food and baby bibs.

"It's scary," said Steve Blackledge, legislative director for the California Public Interest Research Group in Sacramento. "Government regulators just don't have the resources to protect us."

Worse, the Consumer Product Safety Commission took almost three weeks from the time it was informed of the tainted coloring sets by Toys R Us on Aug. 10 until it issued a warning to parents.

That's 20 days that government regulators sat on the problem as possibly thousands of children nationwide were exposed to dangerous levels of lead.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to lead can cause damage to the nervous system or kidneys, poor muscle coordination, learning disabilities and other serious disorders.

We already have laws in place that say any product manufactured abroad must meet U.S. safety standards. Yet all too often, products are slipping through the cracks and putting people (and pets) in danger.

Toys R Us posted a notice on its website about the recall but didn't issue a news release. It's not unusual for a company to step aside and have the safety commission take the lead on all publicity.

"Toys R Us is working aggressively to test and retest to ensure that the products on our shelves are safe," said Kathleen Waugh, a spokeswoman for the company. "It's an enormous priority for the organization."

She said random testing of products recently revealed high lead content on the wooden packaging of the coloring sets and in one of the watercolor paints. About 8,300 of the sets have been sold since October and the remainder were either on store shelves or in warehouses.

Waugh said Toys R Us tested the coloring sets in April and found no problems. Additional tests more recently turned up the high lead readings. Toys R Us received the latest results Aug. 9 and notified the Consumer Product Safety Commission a day later.

Regulators issued a terse announcement Thursday morning detailing the scope of the latest recall and advising parents to "immediately take the products away from children and return them to the nearest Toys R Us store for store credit."

Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the commission, said it was routine for weeks to pass between the time a safety hazard is reported and a recall or warning is issued, even when the matter is given priority treatment, as was the case with Toys R Us.

"Twenty days is a fairly short time for the agency," she said. "There are a number of things that must be identified and put in place before a recall is announced."

These include determining the magnitude of the problem and the severity of the hazard, Vallese said. She added that the commission also considers the timing of each announcement relative to other warnings.

For example, Vallese said that if the commission had alerted the public earlier about the Imaginarium coloring sets, the warning may have been overshadowed by announcements that El Segundo-based Mattel Inc. was recalling about 20 million toys, in part because of lead paint.

"The agency is very serious about removing lead from a child's environment," she said. "But we have to weigh each recall against other recalls we have."

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs this week launched an investigation into safety standards for children's clothing and toys, and whether the Consumer Product Safety Commission is up to the task of safeguarding us from shoddy imports.

"We will examine whether new legislation is needed to protect children from hazardous toys and clothing," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement.

New legislation is all well and good. But what's needed is already clear: a watchdog agency with sufficient resources and wherewithal to keep Americans safe.

That means an end to the corporate honor system and a new system of third-party testing before imported goods reach retailers. That also means penalties for any company that knowingly distributes or sells a product deemed hazardous by regulators.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is responsible for more than 15,000 types of consumer products. Yet it has only about 400 staffers, less than half its workforce of 30 years ago.

The commission has been without a chairman since July 2006 and, without an official quorum, has lacked the ability for most of this year to take action on regulatory matters or civil penalties. That power was restored only on a temporary basis this month.

How do we keep children and other consumers safe? Obviously we can't control foreign governments and manufacturers. What we can do is take responsibility for ensuring the quality of products before they reach store shelves.

This might add a buck or two to the price of that coloring set, or a few cents to the cost of that cat food or toothpaste.

Ask yourself, though: Isn't it worth it?

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Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays, and occasionally in between. Send tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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