If parents stay true to their word this year, a lot of kids are going to wake up on Christmas morning without any toys. The Grinch getting the blame, of course, will be China, the source of millions of toys made with lead paint or other defects that have been recalled in 2007. Surveys show that up to 45 percent of American shoppers say they plan to shun toys from China this holiday season.
Trouble is, when it comes to toys, China is really the only game in town.
In 1992, fewer than 40 percent of the toys purchased in the United States came from China. Today it's over 85 percent. About 5 percent of toys come from other low-cost countries like Mexico and India, which are vulnerable to the same problems that have plagued Chinese toys. American-made toys account for just 10 percent of the market, and while they're considered safer, they also tend to be costly boutique toys beyond the reach of many consumers.
Plenty of politicians and interest groups are urging Americans to boycott Chinese toys, because they think it will help (pick one or more): bring back U.S. jobs/prop up local businesses/punish the evil Chinese Communists/insert other motivation here. Fearmongering and hyperbole, of course, don't help parents find safe, inexpensive toys for their kids. Some new research does, however. Three Canadian university researchers, Hari Bapuji, Paul Beamish, and Andre Laplume, analyzed recalls of imported toys from 1992 to 2006 and discovered trends that can help consumers understand what's behind all the scary-sounding recalls.
Manufacturing problems inside China are an obvious problem, but it turns out that over the past 15 years, there have been more recalls due to design mistakes—like creating toys with small magnets or pieces that can break off—that occurred on the drawing board before Chinese workers ever painted or assembled a single part. There are important lessons for business managers and government regulators in this, but it also yields lessons for how shoppers can steer around problematic toys, without having to rule out every single product from China. Some practical guidelines:
Avoid toys with magnets and small parts, wherever they're from. Design flaws usually involve small parts that break off or come unglued—and can be swallowed by young kids. Magnets used in toys like Polly Pocket play sets, recalled earlier this year, are especially risky because if a child swallows more than one, they can attract one another and tear or block a child's intestines. Parents with kids under 4 should already avoid toys with small, loose parts; they can go a step further by ruling out any toy with parts that look as if they could break off or be swallowed or with small magnets that are glued in.
Avoid painted toys, unless they're made in the United States or Europe. Lead paint, the other big cause of recalls, has been showing up in Chinese-made toys because it's still available in China as a substitute for more expensive paints. So parents who want to play it safe can simply skip painted toys. Unpainted plastic toys, for instance, are less likely to contain lead, although parents should still throw them away if they start to fray or break down. Painted U.S.-made toys ought to be OK; the main reason experts consider American-made toys safer is that lead paint is banned in the United States, so it is not even available to toy makers.
Don't buy metal jewelry for kids. It poses a double threat: The cheap metal can contain lead, and there are often dangly parts that can easily break off.
Buy name-brand toys. The toy industry consists of a few huge companies like Mattel and Fisher-Price and lots of smaller distributors most people have never heard of. Even though the big companies have been responsible for most of the recalled toys, they're still best equipped to conduct their own tests, browbeat wayward manufacturers, and institute fixes. Safety experts are less comfortable about off-brand toys sold in discount stores or vending machines. "At companies buying no-name toys from some factory in Wobegon, China, there's probably nobody inspecting toys for lead paint," says Jean Halloran, a product safety specialist at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. Mattel and other big toy companies, meanwhile, have tightened quality control procedures and fixed known problems.
Test for lead yourself, if you're worried. Several companies offer home lead-testing kits with swabs you can rub against toys or household paint to test for lead. The federal Consumer Products Safety Commission discourages consumers from doing their own lead tests, because false positives might lead people to throw away toys that are actually safe. But Consumers Union disagrees and evaluated several home kits, recommending two: Homax Lead Check ($8) and the Lead Check Household Lead Test Kit ($18.45).
Check for recalls periodically. It can take months or years for safety issues to surface, and many recalls involve products parents don't even realize they have in their homes. Consumers can track recalls at the government's official recall website or at sites maintained by consumer groups, such as NotInMyCart.org.
Find alternatives to toys. The Canadian research confirms what the headlines strongly suggest: The number of toy recalls has been increasing significantly, and it's not obvious when that will improve. So parents who can amuse their kids with something other than toys are cutting down on the risk of a problem. "Give them pots and pans and some flour and some wooden spoons," suggests Halloran. Now there's a way to cut down on Christmas expenses.