Wall Street Journal
Dec 16, 2008
Consumer watchdogs wielding handheld X-ray guns are testing toys on shelves for unsafe levels of lead and other chemicals, giving retailers -- from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to mom-and-pop stores -- a case of heartburn this holiday season.
This month, testers with the Center for Environmental Health, a consumer advocacy group in Oakland, Calif., said that Wal-Mart frog-charm jewelry contained levels of lead higher than allowed by California state law. The group informed the California attorney general's office, which then sent a notice of violation last week to Wal-Mart, telling the company to remove the item from its stores, according to Christine Gasparac, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.
Wal-Mart said in a statement that it has "directed stores in California to remove this item from our shelves and blocked its sale at registers as we investigate further." The company said safety is a top priority.
The advent of guerrilla toy testing, enabled by technology, has taken the toy industry to task again, just a year after scares about unsafe toys so rattled holiday shoppers that Congress this year passed a sweeping overhaul of consumer-product-safety regulation. Typically, advocacy groups send out press releases disclosing their findings -- sometimes without first informing the affected retailers or manufacturers. They often tell regulatory officials about any troubling findings. The Consumer Product Safety Commission said it hears from up to a dozen of these groups around the holiday season.
To be sure, the Toy Industry Association, a New York-based trade group, says that consumer-group reports can unnecessarily alarm parents during the peak holiday shopping season, and that the X-ray-gun testing method can be faulty and unfair.
X-ray fluorescence -- or XRF -- is a technology used in various handheld testing guns that can screen for about two dozen elements, such as lead, cadmium and titanium. When the trigger of the battery-powered device is pulled, a miniaturized X-ray tube inside emits rays that strike the sample being tested. The elements in that sample emit return rays with frequencies that indicate which elements are present and in what amounts.
Operating the gun without proper training, which takes several hours or more to learn, can compromise results, manufacturers say. No special licensing is required, but the user must properly calibrate the device, for example.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission uses the Niton XRF Analyzer made by Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of Waltham, Mass. The agency's investigators began using the device in 2007 amid a string of high-profile product recalls that spurred public outrage about dangerous levels of lead in toys and other children's items. Gib Mullan, the assistant executive director for the CPSC's office of compliance and field operations, said it's a "great device for screening products for lead" and heavy elements such as cadmium and chromium.
While the CPSC uses the X-ray gun to screen items it buys from stores or assesses at ports, it still sends questionable items to its lab for additional testing. The agency also conducts testing based on consumer-group reports, but "some are better than others," Mr. Mullan said. The more reliable reports have led to product recalls after they were confirmed in laboratory tests. A report issued by the California Center for Environmental Health, for example, led to the recall last year of 175,000 Curious George dolls with excessive levels of lead.
"We want to be able to reassure parents that what they're buying for their children for Christmas doesn't contain toxic chemicals," said Caroline Cox, director of the center. She added that her group uses the handheld X-ray technology only as an initial screening tool, and that questionable items are sent to a third-party, certified lab for confirmation before regulators are alerted.
Still, some consumer groups tend to use the handheld gun only, a practice that has companies and industry trade groups crying foul.
Jack Schylling was driving to work two weeks ago when he heard a report on the radio that a children's tea set made by his company, Schylling Associates, was tested and contained worrisome levels of lead. The consumer group Healthytoys.org, a project of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based nonprofit group the Ecology Center, had identified the product along with about 500 others that it said had medium or high levels of "chemicals of concern."
Mr. Schylling said the test, which was conducted only with an XRF gun, was flawed and contradicted results he had from an independent, certified lab showing the product was safe.
"It seemed like it was fear mongering," said the president and founder of the Rowley, Mass., company that makes reproductions of antique toys for stores that include major retailers. "I feel like I've really been treated unfairly."
After Mr. Schylling called Healthytoys.org to complain and sent copies of lab tests, the group removed the test results of that toy from its Web site pending further assessment, said Healthytoys research director Jeff Gearhart. He said the report cited another Schylling product that was just fine.
Mr. Gearhart said there are limitations to every test methodology, including the ones conducted in labs. He said he doesn't send items to labs because "ultimately it's affordability and the ability to rapidly screen products."
Lab testing is pricier and more time-consuming than using an XRF scanner gun, which is also costly. Guns sold by one manufacturer, for example, cost between $25,000 and $45,000, depending on the model. Once the device is paid for, the cost of testing is labor only, some consumer groups said, while laboratory tests for lead can cost about $25 each.
Jon Shein, a marketing director at Thermo Fisher Scientific, said the company "never suggested that this technology should replace certified testing labs. We have always promoted the product as a screening tool," he said.
During the CPSC's fiscal year 2008, one of its investigators in Houston randomly picked toy samples the "old" way -- by looking for bright colors on toys and wooden blocks on store shelves. Bright paint could be a sign of high levels of lead, Mr. Mullan said. The investigator sent 30 samples to the agency's lab, which found only one of them to be problematic. Conversely, with the XRF gun, 500 items were sampled in the same amount of time by another investigator at the port of Los Angeles. Of the 100 items sent to the lab for lead-paint testing, half tested positive for troublesome levels.
"It really makes us more efficient," Mr. Mullan said.
The CPSC will be studying the ability of the XRF device to be used for broader purposes now that the law will focus on lead content instead of just lead paint on children's products -- a requirement of the sweeping Congressional overhaul of consumer-product safety regulations in August. Tougher regulations take effect on Feb. 10 that set first-time limits on lead and phthalates allowed in children's products.
Despite government efforts, consumers must remain vigilant, said Liz Hitchcock, the public-health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy group.
She said her group doesn't use the X-ray devices to test toys, but does send items to labs for testing, with the most recent findings listed in PIRG's 23rd annual Trouble in Toyland report, issued last month. The group warned consumers that it is still "buyer beware" season, since many of the new consumer protections don't take effect until next year.