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Published: Wednesday, 12/3/2008

Group finds fewer toys with high lead levels; reports toy chemical levels


NEW YORK After the high-profile recalls of millions of lead-contaminated toys last year, a watchdog group said Wednesday that its tests found fewer toys with high levels of chemicals in them this year. But about a third of the toys tested still contained a worrisome level of chemicals.

Healthytoys.org, a project of The Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental group based in Michigan, in collaboration with other groups, tested about 1,500 toys for a variety of chemicals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium and others. About half were similar to toys tested last year.

About one-third were found to have a significant level of chemicals, while two-thirds had low levels or none of the chemicals the group tested for. Lead was detected in 20 percent of toys, compared with 35 percent last year.

"We did see a reduction in the amount of lead this year, so I think the attention on the issue last year and throughout this year helped reduce the amount of lead in products," said Jeff Gearhart, research director for healthytoys.org. "The bad news is that there are still far too many toys with elevated levels of chemicals."

The toy industry, however, took issue with the group's testing methods and said that toy makers, the government and retailers have been working to improve safety standards.

The Ecology Center, which also tests for chemical content in other products, began testing toys last year after a spate of recalls. Most significantly, Mattel Inc. recalled more than 21 million Chinese-made toys on fears they were tainted with lead paint and tiny magnets that children could accidentally swallow.

About 3.5 percent of toys tested had lead levels above the current 600 parts per million federal standard that would trigger a recall of lead paint. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a level of 40 ppm of lead as the maximum that should be allowed in children's products. Lead poisoning can cause irreversible learning disabilities and behavioral problems and, at very high levels, seizures, coma, and even death.

Following last year's recalls, Congress passed legislation that lowers the allowed level of lead paint on toys to 90 ppm and sets a federal limit on lead content within toys for the first time. That measure goes to effect in February.

Toys that tested high for lead in the current study included a "High School Musical" crown necklace made for Disney by F.A.F. Inc. and a LeapFrog Leapster2 Wall-E game system. The Nintendo Wii tested high for bromine, which can be found in some flame retardants. A complete list can be found at www.healthytoys.org.

F.A.F. Inc., LeapFrog and Nintendo did not immediately return calls for comment.

Similar to last year, children's jewelry remained the category with the most lead, Gearhart said, with 15 percent of jewelry samples containing lead levels above 600 ppm.

Needham & Co. analyst Sean McGowan said he was skeptical of the analysis and said the portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer the group used is "notorious for false positives."

"I am extremely leery of the test results without knowing how diligent the testing is," he said.

Joan Lawrence, vice president of standards and regulatory affairs at the Toy Industry Association trade group, called the report "misleading to consumers."

"They use the XRF technology that is at best recognized by the federal government as a screening tool it is not a test," she said. "The actual testing of toys is time-consuming, very expensive and very detailed. They used a short cut that is an incomplete picture."

Gearhart defended the method.

"The X-ray test method is used by hundreds of researchers in dozens of different industries to screen and analyze products," he said. "It's a different test method than what many of the toy companies use but we actually think it's a more conservative testing device. We're quite comfortable with the usefulness of it to screen toys and other consumer products."

Lawrence said that the industry has been making changes since last year's recalls.

"The federal government said last month they are testing more toys and finding fewer issues," she said. "I think that's the real story consumers need to know."

But Gearhart said the standards still aren't strict enough.

"We feel existing standards not protective enough and have been pushing for improvements in those," he said.

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