Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Toy Recall at Christmas...Again

Last year, 2007, lead-laced toys imported from China dominated the headlines with massive recalls causing mini-hysteria among parents (and rightfully so).

The demands for stricter quality control from concerned parents prompted Ottawa to reassure the public that they would be seeing fewer toy recalls as stricter policies were put into place.

The stricter policies are in place and the number of children’s products pulled from the shelves increased by some 40% in 2008. This is being attributed to a potentially toxic and previously undetected threat – barium – tainting seven of those toys. Lead continues to be the biggest reason for recall; but, barium was a new find for Health Canada who says it hides mostly in wooden toys with brightly coloured paint. (Irresistible for small chewers who then ingest the paint.)

Used to create pigments in paint, barium is grouped with arsenic and cadmium and its use in children's products is limited in Canada through hazardous products legislation.

"It sounds very ominous," said Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers' Association of Canada. "It's astounding to us to see some of these poisons and toxins that get into products."

Those who point to the fact that there were no barium-related recalls last year are using skewed data. The reason there have been no previous recalls for barium is simply because there never has been testing for it. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

"In 2007, due to the number of recalls related to lead content in paint on children's toys, Health Canada focused testing and enforcement activities on lead content," the Ministry of Health said in a statement. "This year, Health Canada performed testing for all heavy metals (lead, mercury, antimony, arsenic, cadmium, selenium and barium) on 92 painted toys available on the Canadian market."

The federal agency issued the barium-related recalls for the seven children's toys between August and October.

The most recent recall was a toy dump truck under the Fast Lane brand (UPC 803516114007) in October.

The month before, the agency issued a warning on its website about a brightly coloured toy locomotive called the "Stacking Train" by Melissa and Doug (UPC 000772005722 and batch GY1207).

Also in September, a recall was issued for three Kushies Baby brand Zolo Zippy wooden pull toys, including a buggy (item 80020 and UPC 064408800204), a toy named Ozlo ( 80019 and UPC 064408800198) and a toy called Scoot (item 80021 with a 064408800211 UPC code).

In August, notices were issued about four toys. A set of wooden alphabet and number blocks by First Learning (item 8409 and UPC 834162008198). A Galt brand wooden block with four pop-up pegs (product reference AO138L, UPC code of 5011979101389). A wooden domino set with a circus theme, called "Big Top Flippity Flops" by Alex (item 86W and UPC 731346008602). A stacking toy set called "Geometric Stacker" by Melissa and Doug (item 094730, UPC 000772005678, batch ZP1207).

While some forms of barium are safely used for medical or commercial purposes other forms are toxic. It can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and cramps.

More severe symptoms include difficulty breathing, increased or decreased blood pressure, numbness and muscle paralysis, Health Canada said. In rare cases, exposures to very high levels can be fatal.

Health Canada says no barium-related incidents have been reported in connection with any of the recalled toys.

As of Dec. 24/08, there have been 114 children's products recalled in 2008 compared with 82 in 2007.

Unfortunately, once again, China figures prominently in this recall. At least half of the children's products recalled this year for whatever reason - lead content, barium, choking or strangulation hazard - were made in China.

Eleanor Friedland, vice-president of the Consumers Council of Canada, said she was "disturbed" to learn there was such a dramatic increase in toy recalls. "It drives me nuts," she said. "If we want to trade with countries then they have to have the same type of inspection practices that we have here; and, if not, stop trading with them for God's sake."

Ex-Health Minister Tony Clement predicted at year’s end 2007 that there would be fewer product recalls in 2008. "Companies haven't kept as rigorous a view of the standards on their offshore supply chains," Clement told the Canadian Press last December. "A lot of companies have learned their lesson now."

The Health Ministry has released an email that states that the increase in the number of recalls is due to several factors. Probably the biggest contributor to the increased number of product recalls is Health Canada increasing its targeted sampling and testing program of toys over the past 18 months. Also, many companies are making a more comprehensive effort to inform consumers of any hazards in a more timely fashion.

Our last election cost us dearly. Not just in the money that was spent on it; but, in other ways as well. (Don't get me started!) At the time Clement made his comments there was a very good likelihood that he would have been correct if the election had not have occurred.

At the time, legislation was moving through the House of Commons that would have imposed stricter penalties on manufacturers and importers of dangerous goods. These industries would have been much more tightly controlled. Instead of recalls being done on what is essentially a voluntary basis by the manufacturer, the government would have the necessary power to force a recall of goods they determined to be hazardous.

Unfortunately for all Canadians, the proposed Canada Consumer Product Safety Act was one of the bills that died on the order paper when the election was called. It had gone through second reading and had been referred to committee when Parliament was dissolved.

The end of January should show us what we have to expect regarding the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act and the importance given to it by the new government.

Cran (Consumers’ Association of Canada) believes the government was making a "very valiant" effort to enhance product safety.

"(However) I don't see any attempt on the part of the manufacturers to be more vigilant," he said. “I think there's a very solid need at the moment for the minister to have powers to recall and penalize and hold accountable people who are bringing dangerous goods into the country." (There are many who would agree with you, Bruce.)

For a complete list of products recalled in 2008, go to

and choose children's products in Health Canada's drop down category menu.

Don’t forget that pre-2008, there was no barium testing done, so those wooden toys with the eye-catching, brilliantly-coloured paint bought before 2007 could be hazardous to your child’s health.

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