In anticipation of the annual Nuremberg Toy Fair, which kicks off on Thursday, Feb. 7, consumer groups and manufacturers disagreed on whether the announced overhaul of EU toy safety rules went far enough.
One theme at the huge German Toy Fair that kicks off on Thursday, is product safety
Even before the Mattel scandal broke out last summer -- when the US toymaker voluntarily recalled over 18 million Chinese-made products worldwide, ranging from Barbie dolls to lead-tainted play cars -- EU regulators were feverishly working on overhauling a 20-year-old directive aimed at guaranteeing a high level of safety in toys sold in the 27-member bloc.
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"We have a far greater awareness of chemical risks today than twenty years ago," said Laura Degaillaix, a biochemist and policy advisor to BEUC, the European Consumer's Organization in Brussels.
The European Commission announced in late January that it wanted to cut the level of lead and other toxic substances that provoke cancer, genetic mutations or hormonal changes in addition to banning fragrances in modeling clay and children's cosmetics that could trigger allergic reactions.
Phthalates, the most common chemical compound used to mold the plastic content of toys, for example can be harmful in the same way that asbestos exposure increases the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Which is why the commission plans to ban three phthalates and partially ban three more.
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"Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg," said Degaillaix. "Other chemicals that have not been banned carry similar risks. There are too many loopholes that allow toy manufacturers to get around these bans."
One big problem is that the new proposals prohibit certain phthalates and carcinogens only in the accessible part of a toy. But, according to Degaillaix, that is not enough.
"Imagine a soft plushy ball that undergoes a lot of wear and tear," she said. "Moisture from a baby's mouth makes the ball porous, causing internal toxins to rise to the surface."
Monique Goyens, the director general of BEUC said that there are alternative materials that are more child friendly.
"Lead for example is not needed at all for paint in toys, and carcinogenic materials should not be used at all. Full stop," she said.
Trace elements of chemicals are inevitable
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Toy Industries of Europe (TIE), an action group in Brussels that represents LEGO and the European divisions of US giants such as Mattel and Hasbro has argued, however, that the industry is continuously seeking global solutions to raise the bar on toy safety and that its corporate members go further than the legal minimum required to ensure that their products are safe.
Bryan Ellis, who is chairman of TIE and an independent consultant for Hasbro, said that the new European Commission directive is a reasonable compromise between what manufacturers are capable of achieving and the public interest.
Trace elements of chemicals are inevitably locked into a product, and this applies not only to toys, but to other objects that small children put into their mouths, said Ellis.
"The technical problem is that trace elements are extremely difficult to measure and the amounts are so miniscule that they pose no possible harm to the public," said Ellis.
Problems with counterfeit toys entering EU market
"The problems lie with peripheral importers in China and elsewhere, in particular with counterfeit products coming into Europe," said Ellis, adding that this is a global problem that requires the proper checks and balances at every stage of the manufacturing process and careful monitoring at EU ports of entry.
According to European industry figures, China accounted for over 80% of all imports from non-EU countries in 2005.
"The most important thing for toy companies is branding and reputation. We clearly have a very strong commercial interest in producing safe products, but the standards that we are required to meet need to be practical, necessary and doable," he said.
Not least, parents and caregivers too need to take responsibility for keeping dangerous toys out of the hands of small children. "They need to make sure that toys are age appropriate," Ellis said.