By VEENA TREHAN, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON (Feb 23, 2008) - Maryland state and national lawmakers are leading efforts to get the lead and other toxins out of children's playthings.
"Maryland is in the front of a group of states that wants to protect its citizenry," said Delegate James Hubbard, D-Prince George's. He's the sponsor of two of three bills making their way through the Maryland General Assembly to ban toxic chemicals from toys.
The bills would lower the permissible amount of three chemicals in children's products: lead, recently found in paint on toys; phthalates, a chemical used to make vinyl more flexible; and bisphenol A, an organic compound used in beverage containers, including baby bottles.
A Maryland bill to immediately limit lead in toys to 600 parts per million passed its House committee on Friday. The same legislation is in a Maryland Senate subcommittee, and both are expected to pass.
The moves are partly in response to a series of massive toy recalls last year, largely focused on the use of lead in U.S. toys by Chinese manufacturers.
The solution to making toys safer, the lawmakers and others said, will likely require cooperation from toy manufacturers and retailers as well as greater federal funding and legislation.
"We are talking about a major chasm in our system that absolutely must be addressed by every party involved," said Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, at a December news conference addressing high levels of lead in children's toys.
The news conference followed his letter to Mattel's CEO calling on the company to stop producing toys with lead and to recall two toy blood pressure cuffs with several times the lead level for a recall. On Jan. 30, Cummings, joined by 56 representatives, including Rep. Al Wynn, D-Mitchellville, sent a similar letter to the company.
Also at the federal level, the House of Representatives passed legislation, cosponsored by Cummings, Wynn, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, to reduce lead content to 600 parts per million immediately, lowering it to 300 parts per million two years after bill enactment and 100 parts per million in another two years.
Similar Senate legislation is expected to pass early next month, but it also boosts funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has been weakened by cuts and has just 15 inspectors to screen a growing number of toy imports.
"It is neither reasonable nor responsible to task an agency with a job as important as protecting the public health without providing the resources necessary to accomplish that task," said Van Hollen in a statement.
The federal and Maryland legislation targets children's products because the young are believed to be uniquely vulnerable to these toxic substances that can have a lasting effect, according to experts.
Lead, contained in paint and gas, for decades has been known to cause learning disabilities. Phthalates, included in soft vinyl toys like teething rings, have been tied to kidney and liver problems. Bisphenol A, that can leak out of baby bottles when they are heated, may disrupt hormones, critics charge.
"We can take some progressive steps to remove toys or pay consequences later on down the road in mental health, special education services, or in some cases, institutional costs," said Hubbard.
Maryland is well ahead of the pack in regulating the other potentially harmful compounds in toys—plastic softeners.
The General Assembly's Health & Government Operations Committee on Wednesday heard a bill to ban the manufacture or sale of children's products with phthalates and bisphenol.
"I think Maryland will be a leader on the East Coast of this country with relationship to phthalates this year," said Hubbard, who first introduced the bill three years ago.
Phthalates have been banned by the European Union, Japan and California.
David Kosmos, a program associate at Maryland Public Interest Research Group, said research into the effects of phthalates on the body have lagged behind studies of other toxins.
"Phthalate research is a point now that lead was in the late 1970s and 1980s," he said. "The science is emerging and we should do something now."
Legislation to limit lead poisoning 10 years earlier would have saved a lot of lives and trouble, said Kosmos.
Kosmos also said the switch to other chemicals is feasible.
"Factories in China make phthalate-free toys for half of the world and toys with phthalates for the other half of the world to save a few pennies," he said.
The hottest debate of Wednesday's hearing came on bisphenol A. No states or nations have banned the chemical, although several U.S. states have introduced legislation to phase it out.
Julie Goodman, a scientist at Gradient Corporation, said her review of the research shows current uses of bisphenol A are safe. Goodman also said, when questioned, that her firm's clients include several in the chemical industry.
State action is necessary, backers of the legislation told the committee, because federal legislation is often delayed and it's important for Maryland to lead government in protecting citizens.
Hubbard said the government often steps in only after several states pass competing standards and industry asks the federal government for "protection" from higher standards.
Toy manufacturers and retailers also weighed in on toy safety after a year of record toy recalls. Toys 'R Us and Wal-Mart, two retailers that comprise just under half the U.S. toy market, last week announced steps to rid their products of problem chemicals. The two companies operate more than 25 stores in Maryland.
Starting March 1, the retailers are setting a higher standard than one expected to pass Congress for lead on the surface paint for toys. The companies are also phasing out chemicals found in vinyl.
Toys 'R Us said this and other recent safety initiatives demonstrate their commitment to children. "The bar can never be too high for safety," said company spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh.
Hubbard framed these initiatives as a reaction to perceptions among consumers. Polls show a dramatic rise last year in those concerned about the safety of Chinese-made toys that make up 80 percent of the total.
"Their actions are driven by economics," said Hubbard. "They are responding to a marketplace that's scared to buy their toys by virtue of what they've heard and read."
The toy recalls of last year may spread to other products made in China, said Eric Johnson, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
"Many of these things we've been talking about with toys we're going to be talking about with other products because they see a lot more scrutiny than other products coming out of China."
Despite all of the political grandstanding about toy safety, few politicians address the trade issues that have fostered the problem in the first place. Years of national trade policy have allowed U.S. manufacturers to close U.S.-based factories and move them overseas in search of
über-cheap labor and freedom from environmental and safety restraints in order to maximize profits and externalize costs.
The lack of import tariffs has allowed corporations to import the products back into the U.S. with little overhead cost.
A 1999 study by the House Joint Committee on Taxation concluded that 44% of international
merchandise imports into the country in 1994 were intra-company.
The cost to American citizens is more than product safety. The policy has also cost the country millions of manufacturing jobs and substantially reduced the manufacturing capabilities of the U.S.
(somd.com contributed to this story.)