What's with China and lead poisoning?

Was 2007 the year of the Chinese product recall? It does seem that way, with numerous Chinese-made products being taken off the shelves in what may be a record year for toy recalls. U.S. regulatory agencies and companies instituted numerous recalls for defective, dangerous or toxic products, such as toothpaste, children's jewelry, toys, tools, dog food, baby bibs, tires and computer batteries. The common link between many of these products: They were made in China and contain lead paint.

To investigate what's going on here, let's look at a few of the dozens of recalls that have taken place. In July 2007, Mattel recalled some of its "Dora the Explorer" and "Sesame Street" toys due to concerns about lead paint. On Aug. 2, 2007, Fisher-Price, a subsidiary of Mattel, recalled 967,000 plastic toys with lead paint. On Aug. 14, Mattel recalled 19 million more toys: 436,000 toy cars with lead paint and 18 million other toys (63 different models) that contained magnets that are dangerous if swallowed [source: NY Times]. On Sept. 21, after the deaths of three children, the Consumer Products Safety Commission recalled one million Chinese-made Simplicity and Graco Cribs. In this case, and with some of the year's other product recalls, the problem was attributed to a design flaw -- not shoddy construction by a Chinese manufacturer.

If the dangers of lead paint are well known, then why do so many Chinese-made products still contain it? First, lead paint is inexpensive, and it produces vivid colors. It also goes on easily and resists corrosion.

In the United States, lead paint was outlawed in 1962 for use in children's toys and products, apartments, houses, hospitals and similar structures. (Lead paint is still legally used on street signs and in a variety of other areas where it doesn't pose a health hazard.) Government regulations state that children's products whose lead content exceeds 0.06 percent face a recall [source: Washington Post].

­Pollution and lead poisoning are major problems across China. At least 10 percent of Chinese children suffer from lead poisoning due to lead found in paint, food, water and other sources [source: Press Interpreter]. Lead poisoning can cause numerous health problems, including kidney failure and brain damage.

Since many of these recalled products were made in China, are Chinese manufacturers to blame? What role do the corporations that design and sell the products play? On the next page, we'll investigate some of the reasons behind the spate of recalls.

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Chinese Manufacturing and Recalls

The numerous toy recalls attracted the attention of Congressional leaders. Here U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar holds a toy with lead paint at a Senate subcommittee meeting about toy safety.
The numerous toy recalls attracted the attention of Congressional leaders. Here U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar holds a toy with lead paint at a Senate subcommittee meeting about toy safety.
Image courtesy KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

When a product is recalled, the company usually does it on its own, either based on research or reports it has received. But the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) can institute recalls and punish companies that brought to market or failed to respond to dangerous products. Mattel's massive recall was particularly shocking because of its high profile and status as a leading toy company. The recall led industry analysts to remark that if a major company like Mattel had a problem with dangerous toys, then numerous other companies' products could pose hazards as well.

Many companies, Mattel included, do not own or manage the factories that produce their toys. Instead they contract out to Chinese companies, where labor is cheap. Some of these Chinese companies in turn contract to smaller manufacturers. For example, Mattel has contracts with up to 50 Chinese companies, many of whom sub-contract out to other Chinese companies. Such a process, combined with a tangled Chinese government bureaucracy, leaves little accountability. Analysts have also commented that small profit margins motivate companies and the manufacturers they contract with to cut costs whenever possible.

Although manufacturers sometimes make mistakes, cut corners or use dangerous materials like lead paint, a product recall is usually the fault of the designer of the product. In fact, a Canadian study published in September 2007 showed that while 95 percent of product recalls since 1988 were for Chinese-made products, 76 percent of the recalls were due to design flaws. Only 10 percent of product recalls were the fault of the manufacturer [source: NY Times]. Companies have a responsibility to ensure that they not only work with reputable, accountable manufacturers but that they also design safe products.

As of now, toy companies aren't required by law to test their products before putting them on sale, though various laws do regulate what can and can't be used in a product. Many companies also abide by acknowledged industry standards, some of them set by ASTM International, an organization that sets international standards for numerous types of products. Companies who do test their toys before bringing them to market do so voluntarily. Still, it's in a company's best interests to test its products to avoid the expense and bad publicity of a product recall and because some retailers demand that products are tested. These tests, run by independent labs, look at issues of safety, durability and quality.

The numerous issues with lead paint, toxic dog food and other Chinese-made products have led to calls for the Chinese government to better regulate manufacturers. China has started cracking down on some flagrant violators, but tight regulation is difficult in a country with more than one billion people and thousands of manufacturers, some of whom disappear one day only to reappear later under a different name or in a different location.

In the U.S., consumer rights advocates and politicians called for more funding for the Consumer Products Safety Commission and stricter standards for imports. Concerns were also raised that the CPSC is understaffed. However, in August 2007, the New York Times reported that the CPSC was working with manufacturers to institute stricter testing guidelines.

For more information about product recalls and lead paint, and to see lists of recalled products, please check out the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • "1 Million Chinese-Made Cribs Recalled." Associated Press. CBS News. Sept. 21, 2007. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/09/21/health/main3285775.shtml
  • Barboza, David. "Problems Go Beyond Lead Paint, Study Says." New York Times. Sept. 11, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/11/business/worldbusiness/11paint.html
  • Beam, Christopher. "How does toy safety testing work?" Slate. June 20, 2007. http://www.slate.com/id/2168765/
  • Beam, Christopher. "Why would a toy manufacturer ever use lead paint?" Slate. Aug. 15, 2007. http://www.slate.com/id/2172289/
  • D'Innocenzio, Anne and Metzler, Natasha T. "Lead Paint Leads to Fisher-Price Toy Recall." Associated Press. The Washington Post. Aug. 2, 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/01/AR2007080102320.html
  • Lancashire, David. "Statistic: 10.45% -- One in Ten Children in China Has Lead Poisoning." Press Interpreter. March 19, 2005. http://www.pressinterpreter.org/node/84
  • Lipton, Eric. "Safety Agency Faces Scrutiny Amid Changes." New York Times. Sept. 2, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/02/business/02consumer.html
  • Story, Louise and Barboza, David. "Mattel Recalls 19 Million Toys Sent From China." New York Times. Aug. 15, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/15/business/worldbusiness/15imports.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&oref=slogin&adxnnlx=1187186596-oNS1R0lLuikAZXcqdzR/6Q
  • Tsai, Michelle. "Why do we need to import wheat gluten from China?" Slate. April 2, 2007. http://www.slate.com/id/2163235/