As we are busily making our gift giving lists and heading out to do our holiday shopping, how many of us think about the safety of what we purchase? Most of us assume that if it is on the grocery shelf or marketed at the toy stores, consumer products are safe. Outbreaks of salmonella and news stories about lead being found in toys is usually the only way we may know that a product may be harmful to us.
Getting product safety news may be difficult considering that the majority of Americans get their news from local TV newscasts and these news programs are often made up of forty percent “soft news” and use a technique called “hook & hold” which consists of hooking the viewer with alarming news, then moving into a brief segment of content based news which is too important to leave out, covering such topics as government, science, education, technology and health. The final segment is designed to leave the viewer feeling good, with an upbeat story or joke. The problem is that the segment that product safety information would be contained in is brief and sandwiched between the exciting opening and the cheerful ending which contains the popular weather & sports segments. Often people have surfed to another channel at this point, and miss important information.
Another source of information on consumer product safety is the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission which “is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from thousands of types of consumer products under the agency’s jurisdiction.” Another federal agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “is responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.” The extent to which these agencies protect consumers is a topic of further blog posts (please subscribe to this blog for notification of the release of these posts).
There are several other consumer protection organizations that publish information and studies which are helpful for consumers in choosing quality products which are also safe. One such organization is The Ecology Center, a Michigan-based nonprofit organization. In partnership with other agencies they recently released the 3rd Annual Consumer Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Toys at www.HealthyStuff.org. Researchers tested nearly 700 popular 2009 children’s products for lead, cadmium, arsenic, PVC, and other harmful chemicals.
The study (en español) found that although lead is decreasing in toys, one in three toys tested still contained harmful chemicals. One alarming discovery of the study is that although lead is decreasing in toys, it is still found in very high concentrations in adult and children’s clothing and accessories. Over half of the plastic handbags tested had over 1,000ppm of lead which greatly exceeds federal safety standards of 300ppm or 40ppm for children according to the recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
How do these products end up on store shelves and eventually in our homes? Despite legislation designed to prevent this, many products are easily being distributed and resold. There are also two views on how to keep American consumers safe. One is that government should regulate, test and apply jurisdiction. The opposite, more libertarian view, is that it is up to consumers to educate themselves and not buy unsafe products and up to the consumers to use the court system to claim any damages which in a free market would eventually lead to companies withdrawing these products.
Two pieces of legislation that have been passed are the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – the obsolete law passed in 1976 to regulate chemicals and the more recent Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, signed into law in 2008, which decreased the allowable amount of lead from 600 parts per million (ppm) to 300 ppm on August 15th 2009 (with a phase-in of 100ppm by August 2011) and banned the use of 6 phthalates in children’s toys. To date, the EPA has required testing on only about 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been on the market since TSCA passed 33 years ago.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
Once again, it is up to the individual to be educated and aware, while at the same time insisting that harmful products be regulated and removed from circulation. As with our general health and fitness, we need to be continuously pro-active both physically and politically.
HealthyStuff.org has published lists of toys by level of concern, from low to high. On the very same page, they provide you with action steps you can take to help make reforms that would insure safer products.
So when you are making your list and before you purchase your gifts, try to buy as many items as possible that are made of sustainable and non-toxic materials, are free-trade certified, and preferably made in the USA.
And for the fitness enthusiast on you list, here’s a great list of gifts sure to please.
 2005 Annual Report - Local TV Content Analysis. Journalism.org. Pew Research.