Safer safety standards?

Kids put everything in their mouths. I remember thinking, when my own kids were in the “How does the book taste?” phase, that I needed nutrition labels on our household items as much as I did on the Pirate Booty. (Who knows, maybe that corner of Moo, Baa, La, La, La counted as a daily serving of fiber?)

That, in a way, is what the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 does: Starting in August of this year, manufacturers must test their products for lead and certain plastics known as phthalates and label them with the date and location of manufacture. (Apparently the Consumer Product Safety Commission isn’t as interested in the fiber content of toys as I am.)

The thinking here is the same behind the nutritional labeling system: If we want people to be smart consumers, we need to arm them with information.

The problem, however, is that the dangers lurking in our toy boxes and diaper bags are a moving target. Right now, as I’m writing this note, reports are hitting the newspapers and the blogs that kids’ jewelry makers are replacing toxic lead with even-more toxic cadmium. And, under the CPSIA — passed in response to the Thomas the Tank Engine lead paint scare of 2007 — and other U.S. laws, that’s totally legal. The image of Whack-a-Mole comes pretty easily to mind.

Without the labels or a complete trust in consumer protection laws, a lot of parents turn to handmade items or the toy equivalent of whole fruits and vegetables: wooden and cloth toys with natural finishes. Just like you know what’s in that apple but not so much what’s in that apple-flavored fruit snack, the simple wooden block finished with beeswax can feel like a safer bet than the plastic block set with all kinds of man-made bells and whistles. Small producers of those natural toys, though, are having trouble complying with the CPSIA. Read more about how very good intentions are boomeranging back on the toy industry on page 12. And then send me a note and let me know how you think the government should set and enforce safety standards (I’m at [email protected]). Or, maybe you think parents need to take on more of the vigilance, instead of leaving it to the government. Or, maybe we should all chill. I’m curious what you think. Let me know.

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