Toy makers, clothing manufacturers and other companies selling products for young children are submitting samples to independent laboratories for safety tests. But the nation's largest toy maker, Mattel, isn't being required to do the same.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently, and quietly, granted Mattel's request to use its own labs for testing that is required under a law Congress passed last summer after a rash of recalls of toys contaminated by lead. Six of those toys were produced by Mattel Inc. and its Fisher-Price subsidiary.
The new law sets strict limits for lead, lead paint and chemicals known as phthalates. It mandates third-party testing for companies, big and small, making products for children 12 and under.
"It's really ironic that the company that was a principal source of the problem" is now getting favorable treatment from the government, said Michael Green, executive director of the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland.
Mattel is getting a competitive advantage, Green said, because smaller companies must pay independent labs to do the tests. Testing costs can run from several hundred dollars to many thousands.
Mattel said that it demonstrated to the product safety agency that its products go through rigorous safety tests. Company spokeswoman Lisa Marie Bongiovanni also said that Mattel has an appropriate "fire wall" in place to ensure test results are protected from corporate influence.
"We have extremely qualified people who work feet away from our production lines," Bongiovanni said. "It allows us to do more testing than any other toy company out there."
Lead can cause irreversible brain damage. The six Mattel-related recalls in 2007 involved more than 2 million toys. They were part of a slew of recalls by several dozen companies. The recalls frightened parents, and pressure came to bear on Congress to pass the new law. Mattel and Fisher-Price have not had any lead recalls since.
In June, Mattel agreed to pay a $2.3-million civil penalty for violating the lead paint ban.
Commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said Mattel proved its case that its labs were insulated from undue corporate influence.
Similar requests from other companies that want to do their own testing are pending at the agency. The agency would not name the companies.