Sunday, August 26, 2007

Toxic Toys, Toxic Trade

Last week's recall of nearly 900,000 Mattel Inc. products was the second major recall of dangerous toys this month. This most recent involved popular items including a variety of Doggie Day Care, Polly Pocket, Barbie and Tanner and Batman toys, as well as "Sarge" die cast cars. The toys were pulled off the shelf because of concerns about lead paint poisoning and a choking hazard due to small magnets coming loose. The earlier recall was for Fisher-Price toys, which included an assortment of Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street toys. Once again, the concern was that the hard surfaces of the toys could contain excessive levels of lead.

In every case, the toys were manufactured in China, which has prompted critics to accuse the government of failing to protect Canadian consumers. In question are Canada's Environmental Protection Act and the Hazardous Products Act, both of which are badly in need of updating. Canada's Lead Reduction Strategy, which falls under the jurisdiction of Health Canada, was reviewed a decade ago, but none of the six original objectives of the review was met, according to the Canadian Environmental Law Association’s Kathy Cooper.

Canada's Auditor General has been critical of the federal government's failure to protect its citizens since 1997. In 1999, Canada's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Brian Emmett said, "Understanding the risks posed by toxic substances is the first step toward protecting Canadians. But the federal government's knowledge of their effects is incomplete and the risks are still unknown. Furthermore, the departments responsible for managing the risks are themselves deeply divided on how it should be done. They even disagree on the importance of the risks."

Three years later in 2002, Emmett's successor, Johanne Gelinas, warned that the management of toxic substances remained inadequate. Five more years later, millions of toys that are readily available on store shelves have been identified as potential toxic health hazards to our most vulnerable of citizens - our children.

While the government has an undeniable responsibility to protect its citizens, those same citizens have an inherent responsibility to become a lot more discriminating about what they buy and where they buy it.

The problem is that consumers have been seduced by the cheap availability of just about everything, thanks to global trade and retailing giants like Wal-Mart. The world's largest corporation and biggest retailer got that way by relying heavily on the cheap labor and lower environmental standards in China, where a whopping 70 percent of Wal-Mart's goods are made. In 2004 alone this translated into $18 billion worth of goods.

"If Wal-Mart were an individual economy," said Xu Jun, Wal-Mart China's director of external affairs in China Business Weekly, "It would rank as China's eighth-biggest trading partner, ahead of Russia, Australia and Canada." This is the very same China that is notorious for its human rights violations and environmental practices.

According to a briefing document, China's Environmental Crisis, prepared by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, "Sixteen of the world's twenty most polluted cities are in China." One third of China's population lacks access to clean drinking water, thanks to industrial pollution. With its heavy dependence on fossil fuels, China is poised to overtake the United States as world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

If Canadians are really concerned about toxic toys and other potential health threats posed by consumer goods, then they need to take a Latin lesson. Caveat emptor - "Let the buyer beware" - has never been more relevant. Everyday low prices are just a very small part of the real cost we pay for buying cheap consumer goods.


The background report, China's Environmental Crisis, can be found on the Council on Foreign Relations website.

For a preview of Robert Greenwald’s controversial film, Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price go to

For a more humorous perspective, check out Big Box Mart and other socially relevant (and really funny) videos at

As of this writing, Health Canada had not posted the list of recalled toys on its website. However, you can find the complete list on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website.

The list of recalled Mattel and Fisher-Price toys is also available at

Understanding the Risks from Toxic Substances: Cracks in the Foundation of the Federal House, Managing the Risks of Toxic Substances: Obstacles to Progress, and Toxic Substances Revisited, are chapters from the Auditor General's reports and available on Office of the Auditor General of Canada website.


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