Experts say latest unsafe imports point to need for systemic reforms in both nations
By Evan Osnos, Michael Oneal and Maurice Possley - Chicago Tribune staff reporters -
August 4, 2007
QINGDAO, China — Brightly colored children's bracelets and necklaces line the display case of a Chinese manufacturer in this factory town. Adorned with mini school buses, sandals and other charms, the jewelry sits ready to be sold to foreign and domestic buyers. It also contains lead.
While the U.S. government in July issued a recall for similar items, branded as Essentials for Kids, officials at the factory said they knew nothing of it.
And because the CJ Accessories factory sells the jewelry to different companies with different brands, identical lead-tainted products could be on store shelves under other names.
The scene illustrated just one of many factors that undermine efforts to prevent unsafe goods from reaching U.S. shores, even after a dangerous product has been identified.
Three decades after the federal government significantly toughened regulations on lead in children's products, American companies have yet to find a way to successfully screen the flood of imported products for the toxic metal.
The federal watchdog charged with ensuring they do so is overwhelmed and often ineffective. And the growing list of lead recalls of children's products underscores how the metal, slathered on with paint or mixed in with other raw materials, is more pervasive than many American consumers ever imagined.
Mattel Inc. sent parents scurrying for the toy box last week with the recall of nearly 1 million Fisher-Price-brand Elmo, Big Bird and Dora products. Before that it was 1.5 million Thomas & Friends wooden railway cars. And not long before that, it was 2,000 pieces of Land of Nod children's furniture, as well as hundreds of cribs and about 3,000 toy-storage chests from Delta Enterprise Corp., which calls itself the nation's largest seller of cribs.
But the recall by toy giant Mattel raised the issue to a new and unsettling level, in part because of the company's good reputation for quality control. It remains unclear how lead found its way into the company's popular toys. And that is causing both fear and frustration from playrooms to boardrooms.
"I don't think we understand yet what needs to be done," said Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association.
The number of product recalls for lead is growing as imports surge, especially from China. A Tribune analysis of data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees such recalls, shows that while there have been 135 recalls for lead content since 1977, a total of 70 of them, or 52 percent, have occurred since January 2004. Of those, 46 were for lead metal and 24 were for lead paint.
One study by chemists at Ashland University in Ohio tested Chinese-made jewelry from 10 retail chains and discovered that the average lead content far exceeded the federal limit.
The question arises: Are more products being made with lead or are consumers, companies and regulators simply looking more closely? That is difficult to answer, but some experts believe it is mainly a result of the increased scrutiny prompted by a huge jewelry recall in July 2004. The safety commission recalled 150 million pieces of children's jewelry imported from India and sold in vending machines.
"The activists have sunk their teeth into this one, and the CPSC has responded to the pressure," said Christian Warren, historian at the New York Academy of Medicine and author of a book on the history of lead poisoning. "We are more vigilant. ... The question is how to get primary prevention. How do we beef up surveillance? That's a thorny question where it's so easy to change the manufacturing process on the fly."
How the system breaks down
The countries where America's toys are made also are places where paint often still contains dangerously high levels of lead.
Scott Clark, a University of Cincinnati environmental health professor, and his research team tested a variety of brands of paints from China, Malaysia and India, and found that more than 75 percent of the samples had lead levels exceeding U.S. regulations. Lead is added to paint to make it lustrous and durable. Because of lax manufacturing and safety standards in overseas plants, it sometimes is applied to toys imported into the U.S.
In countries where products are made for consumption in the U.S. and the developing world, lead can easily bleed over from one batch of products to the other, according to Warren. It might be as easy as a worker not cleaning out a production vessel thoroughly enough between batches.
The system breaks down in other ways as well. Rare visits to two Chinese factories that produced recalled jewelry found no evidence that U.S. recalls made an impact.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has trouble simply contacting foreign factories to let them know their products are recalled. Typically, the agency sends letters in English and Chinese or e-mail to the foreign factory. But CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese said the agency sometimes can't find companies' contact information.
Further, the agency takes no steps to track how many manufacturers it reaches successfully or whether foreign factories continue to export the goods to the U.S.
"We haven't received any information. I would know about it," said Li Huanpeng, manager of the Weiyi Metal Ornament factory in the southeastern city of Dongguan, which produced some of the 100,000 pieces of children's jewelry recalled by Ohio-based Tween Brands in May.
Weiyi disputed the Tween Brands and safety commission finding that the products in question contained lead. Li, the manager, said they do not ship products containing lead to the U.S.
Inside Weiyi's showroom, the company still prominently displays goods similar to the ones in the recall, including shiny pendants and bracelets emblazoned with the stars of Disney's made-for-TV hit "High School Musical."
The recalled trinkets, which had been selling at Limited Too and Justice stores for $2 to $10, were found to carry doses of lead "toxic if ingested by young children," according to the CPSC notice.
Tween Brands said it no longer uses the factory.
"We detected the problem ourselves through our own independent testing, but there are innumerable mom-and-pop shops who might still have goods like these on their shelves," said Bob Atkinson, vice president of investor relations for Tween Brands.
Part of the problem for consumers is that, although one might expect a U.S. importer to alert its Chinese manufacturer in case of a recall, that doesn't always happen.
For instance, Future Industries of Cliffwood Beach, N.J., and the safety commission jointly recalled 20,000 items made by CJ Accessories last month because of high lead content. But Future Industries owner Morey Serouya said he did not need to alert the Chinese manufacturer because while the product violated U.S. regulations on lead, it did not violate their contract, which had not specified limits on lead.
Serouya, who said he has stopped using CJ Accessories, wondered whether the same items are being sold in the U.S. and abroad despite the recall because numerous American companies might buy from the same overseas factory. "There are probably 10 or 15 importers in the U.S. that might have bought the same product from the same place [and then] marketed it with different packaging," he said.
Vallese said the safety commission is trying to tighten the recall system and needs more help from China and other governments to police factories found to be making unsafe goods. "There is a responsibility on their end to address those issues that are happening within their borders," she said.
But critics say the safety commission has failed to take steps that could prevent recalled goods from returning to the market. For instance, the commission typically does not disclose the names of factories when an American manufacturer's goods are recalled.
Vallese said that if there is a request to publicly release a name, the companies have 30 days to file an objection—and most object, primarily for competitive reasons. The names are submitted to the CPSC, but on a confidential basis, she said. With last week's Mattel recall, she said the company provided the name of the manufacturer but, "as the CPSC has an open and active investigation, that information is not available to the public."
Such secrecy protects manufacturers instead of consumers, said Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan, whose office has investigated dangerous children's products. Publicizing the names of offending factories could help U.S. companies avoid a manufacturer with a history of recalls, she said.
"The CPSC has to do a better job of making sure that U.S. retailers and importers and distributors know that, 'Look, there is a problem at this manufacturer, make sure that you don't have a problem there,'" Madigan said. "It's basic. It's common sense."
'Still a missing piece'
Democrats in Congress, led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), have introduced legislation aimed at bolstering the CPSC's enforcement powers and resources. But Durbin acknowledged that government regulation is not the complete answer.
"I have a friend, a major businessman who imports from China," Durbin said. "I asked him how he handled this, and he said, 'First, do your best to know who you are dealing with. But with all the safeguards, you will never know if that vat of paint has lead in it until it is too late.'"
Keithley said the toy association "very much supports" the efforts on Capitol Hill and wants to help develop industry protocols for the frequency and intensity of product testing.
But he also said with dismay that Mattel already was doing much of what Durbin is proposing and was well ahead of most companies in terms of testing, certifying and labeling products coming from China.
"I suspect what we're learning is that there's still a missing piece" when it comes to defining what needs to be done to protect U.S. consumers, Keithley said.
Experts in both lead poisoning and manufacturing advocate increased testing and inspections of suppliers' factories. "What is most needed is better diligence on suppliers and subsuppliers, including ... surprise audits or inspections by qualified people who know the environment in China, the tricks that are played," Dane Chamorro, regional director in Shanghai of Control Risks, a global consulting company, wrote in an e-mail.
He said it is not uncommon for suppliers to provide excellent samples of raw materials to obtain a contract, but then to later substitute substandard materials to increase profit margins. "Once they rope you in, they can cut back," he wrote. "And a lot of Chinese companies will do anything to cut costs."
Similar problems extend deep into the Chinese supply chain, where it can become even harder to monitor quality.
Spencer Hutchens, a risk-management expert at RAM Consulting, a unit of global testing company Intertek Group plc., said suppliers often have little patience for or knowledge of U.S. regulations. "I think the basic problem in China is an inability to develop good manufacturing processes and adhere to them," Hutchens said.
In the U.S., the economics are driven by constant pressure for low prices.
"A lot of people don't realize the price of toys has gone down probably 100-fold," said Conrad Winkler, a principal in the Chicago office of consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. "That creates cheap toys but also pressure to use cheaper raw materials like lead paint."
Some experts now predict that the embarrassing recalls will create new pressures—this time for better oversight. The cost of recalls and adverse consumer reaction could force the industry to police itself more vigilantly.
In late 2006, The Land of Nod, based in Northbrook, Ill., announced a voluntary recall of 2,000 pieces of children's furniture that had been manufactured in Mexico between September 2003 and August 2006 because they were covered in lead paint. The company has declined to name the maker of that furniture.
But it did say in a statement that it is no longer buying products from the manufacturer.
Because of this recall, the company said, it has stepped up quality control. For instance, "products are tested for lead before each initial order ships."
In an effort to pressure vendors into paying more attention, Illinois and California have passed laws that penalize anyone who manufactures, ships or sells lead-tainted children's jewelry. The Illinois law goes into effect in January. The safety commission has proposed a similar regulation nationwide, but it has not yet been approved.
Rumors of tougher enforcement have started to filter back to CJ Accessories, one of scores of small Korean-owned costume-jewelry makers in Qingdao, on China's coast. The factory, formerly known as Choice Inc., has 130 workers and sends 90 percent of its products to the U.S., said deputy manager Cho Jung Yeon.
On a recent afternoon, teams of young women sat hunched over tables, producing the same small silver-colored snowman earrings that had been recalled by Future Industries. Cho said the factory makes the snowman earrings the same way it did before the recall, using a range of metals including lead. The factory can produce unleaded jewelry if a customer requests, he added.
If the U.S. clamps down, Cho said, his company will focus on sending products to other countries.
"Our new target [markets] are Mexico and Brazil," he said.
Sunday, August 05, 2007
HIDDEN HAZARDS:Why lead-tainted Chinese goods slip through despite U.S. recalls
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