Citizen Vigilance Leads to Toy Recalls (New York Times)  |  New York Times

Louise Story, The New York Times

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When the Consumer Product Safety Commission ordered a recall of half a
million pieces of lead jewelry yesterday, it had two unusual partners: Ward
Stone and his 10-year-old daughter, Montana.

Mr. Stone, a wildlife pathologist in New York’s
Department of Environmental Conservation, and his daughter discovered the
hazardous levels of lead in dozens of children’s necklaces and bracelets sold
at stores like Michaels and Big Lots after they tested jewelry that Montana had received at
birthday parties.

They then took their findings to the New
York state attorney general’s office.

Toys and other products have long been recalled after consumers reported
injuries or deaths related to those items.

But the spate of toy recalls seems to have stirred up more interest among
ordinary consumers like Mr. Stone and his daughter, who marched a determined
path to bring their testing results to the government’s attention.

Flawed products including poisonous toothpaste, baby bibs containing lead
and children’s bracelets with cadmium have been discovered and reported by
individuals this year.

“These folks are our eyes and ears and can catch stuff as it hits their
community,” said Katherine Kennedy, a special deputy attorney general at the New York attorney
general’s office, which brought the items in yesterday’s recall to the
attention of the federal commission after meeting with Mr. Stone.

In addition to agreeing to recall the items, Big Lots, Michaels and 10 other
companies signed a consent agreement with Andrew M. Cuomo, New York’s attorney general, promising not
to sell items with elevated lead levels.

That agreement that will give Mr. Cuomo the power to fine the 12 companies
for any future lead jewelry infraction anywhere in the country – a power that the
federal consumer product agency does not have.

The commission says that the surge in toy recalls in the last few months was
mostly the result of companies stepping up their testing for lead and other
hazards. But the commission is seeing an increase in inquiries from consumers
and consumer groups, said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the commission. Mr.
Wolfson said the commission welcomes the tips and does its best to respond
quickly.

But consumers and consumer groups that have contacted the commission said
the agency’s response is often slow, if it comes at all.

“They don’t thank people, and they often come out and deny problems when
consumer groups raise them,” said Charles Margulis, the communications director
for the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, Calif.,
that frequently tests toys.

This week, the center released a list of 10 children’s products, like
ceramic tea sets and bat and ball sets, that the center says have hazardous
levels of lead. Two of the products had lead paint, and eight contained lead in
vinyl material, the center said. The product commission says it is
investigating these products and others found in the last week by several
consumer advocacy groups.

Judy Braiman is another consumer vigilante who has been telephoning
government officials this month. Ms. Braiman, a grandmother of six, leads a
small group of mothers based in Rochester,
who regularly buy children’s products to test them.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Braiman purchased a Sassy & Chic bracelet sold to
children at a Dollar Tree store. Testing at a local lab found that metal beads
on the jewelry consisted of 23 percent cadmium, a metal that the federal Department
of Health and Human Services has identified as a potential carcinogen. This
week, Ms. Braiman tested a second bracelet sold at Dollar Tree under the
Holiday Ice brand. She found that one of its charms had a 34 percent cadmium
content.

Dollar Tree pulled the Sassy & Chic bracelets off shelves after Ms.
Braiman’s group issued a press release, said Timothy Reid, vice president of
investor relations for Dollar Tree Stores, in an e-mail message. The company is
investigating her claim about the Holiday Ice bracelets, which are still on
shelves.

The federal products commission is also investigating Ms. Braiman’s
findings, an agency spokesman said. The commission does not have an explicit
standard about cadmium but could choose to take action on the Dollar Tree
bracelets under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. Ms. Braiman says her
testing has caused two children’s jewelry recalls in the last two years – an
assertion the commission would not confirm or deny.

The commission’s recall releases sometimes mention other government agencies
that discover hazardous products. But the commission does not generally credit
individual people or nonprofit groups when they discover problems.

The Center for Environmental Health, for example, was not listed on the Nov.
8 recall of Curious George plush toys, because of lead paint on George’s
plastic face. That hazard that was discovered by the center.

Mr. Stone and his daughter Montana began
their testing nine months ago after Montana
heard news reports about lead in children’s jewelry. She asked her father about
the safety of the jewelry she had received as favors at birthday parties.

Mr. Stone, 68, used a lead testing process that he usually uses on deer
carcasses to test for bullets in New
York. (It is illegal in some circumstances to shoot
deer with guns rather than bow and arrow.)

Mr. Stone found that more than half of his daughter’s jewelry tested
positive. Soon, the Stones bought 75 more pieces of jewelry in stores near
their home in Albany.
Of those, 56 pieces contained more than 0.06 percent lead, the federal limit,
and some were half lead, Mr. Stone said, adding that he plans to continue
testing children’s jewelry even after the recall.

Mr. Stone works in an agency of New York state government unrelated to the
attorney general, but he took his test results to Mr. Cuomo’s office last
February. Mr. Cuomo then started an investigation of children’s jewelry sold in
the state, including additional testing.

Lead paint on toys is banned by federal law but the amount of lead found in
metal objects for children is covered by a voluntary regulation that says such
products should not consist of more than 0.06 percent lead, by weight. Mr.
Cuomo’s office is approaching companies that have had lead problems and asking
them to agree to a mandatory 0.06 percent limit nationwide. That way, his
office can levy penalties when such limits are broken, even outside New York.

The attorney general’s settlement also has a provision that requires the
retailers to do their own testing and makes them liable if their suppliers’
tests are found to be faulty. Many companies in last summer’s recalls were
quick to blame their suppliers.

“We are in charge here, we can enforce it, and we can hold their feet to the
fire,” said Ms. Kennedy of the attorney general’s office.

The federal products commission does not have the power to fine companies
who sell lead-laden metal jewelry, because the limit is voluntary. The
commission is working on a rule that would ban jewelry with more than 0.06
percent lead and give the commission the power to fine companies that break the
rule.

Mr. Stone was in an unusual position because he knew who to call in the
state government. Consumer advocates say it can be difficult for most people to
get regulators’ attention.

“As an individual, it’s like a voice screaming in the wilderness. It’s hard
to be heard,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National
Consumers League, a nonprofit organization in Washington. “Bureaucracies are not really
set up to listen to the public.”

Marilyn Furer, a 66-year-old retired postal service worker, took on the
cause of lead-tainted baby bibs last year. She used a testing kit at her home
in Mount Prospect, Ill. and found lead on 8 out of 20 bibs. “I
was in utter disbelief,” she recalls. “My grandson had been stuffing those into
his mouth.”

Ms. Furer took her findings to the Center for Environmental Health, which
helped her pursue her cause. Companies like Toys “R” Us stopped carrying the
bibs last summer.

“I kept saying to myself over and over again, ‘someone should do something,
someone should do something,'” Ms. Furer said. “Then you look around and
realize that you’ve got to be the one to do it.”

 

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