Toymaker knew about lead - Tribune inquiry prompts company to recall toy 5 years after test
By Maurice Possley and Michael Oneal
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
August 9, 2007
The makers of a Thomas & Friends spinning top on Wednesday initiated a voluntary recall of the product, prompted by a Tribune test that found a painted wooden knob on one of the toys contained 40 times the legal limit for lead.
The toymaker, Schylling Associates, of Rowley, Mass., said the recall would cover 24,000 Chinese-made tops shipped by the company between June 2001 and July 2002.
The company also revealed that its own records show it knew about the problem five years ago. But instead of recalling the tops, a Schylling executive said, the company changed the design to a plastic knob.
In researching its records after inquiries from the Tribune, Jim Leonard, the company's chief operating officer, said Schylling found a June 2002 test report showing that the Thomas & Friends top contained lead paint on its wooden knob. That led the company a month later to make the switch to plastic.
Asked why the company did not recall the toy at that time, Leonard said, "I can't answer that. ... I had just started here."
Schylling also is investigating whether lead contaminated two more of its products, a similar toy called a Circus Top and a number of metal pails that featured wooden handles, Leonard said. "It's very clear we have a product we sold that had lead in it," he said. "It's not something we intended or wanted to have happen. We're very frustrated by that."
The company is the latest toymaker forced to recall lead-tainted products made in China. The number of Schylling toys affected is far smaller than the recent lead-related recalls of nearly 1 million Fisher-Price toys and 1.5 million Thomas & Friends wooden railway toys. But the Schylling case illustrates how the government's reliance on companies to police themselves can leave consumers unwittingly vulnerable to unsafe products.
It also shows how even tainted toys that haven't been shipped in years can remain in circulation through the retail bazaar that flourishes on the Internet. In the case of the Thomas top, the Tribune was able to purchase it online through eBay.
One of the most common hazards is lead, a toxic metal banned in most products in the U.S. three decades ago but still a frequently used raw material in factories overseas. It can cause brain damage if ingested by children, lowering IQs and causing developmental delays. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no safe level of lead exposure for children and recommends that all children be screened once a year, especially those who are 6 months to 6 years old.
The Tribune recently had the Schylling top tested by the Hygienic Laboratory of the University of Iowa as part of a broader examination of the hazards hidden among popular children's products.
A spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Scott Wolfson, would not comment on the Schylling recall. In general, though, Wolfson said companies that discover they have tainted products have a legal obligation to report it immediately to the agency.
When informed of the Tribune test results on his company's Thomas & Friends top, Schylling Chief Executive David Schylling said earlier this week that he was "amazed" at the finding.
But one of Schylling's former customers, a Houston man who operates an online toy store called Retro Toys, said he had complained to Schylling officials for many months that some Thomas tops as well as pails and Circus Tops had handles covered with lead paint.
Gary Giddings, owner of Retro Toys, told the Tribune in an e-mail that his firm had filed a complaint with the CPSC last year for lead paint in Schylling products. He said he had done his own tests using swabs, which sometimes falsely indicate the presence of lead.
Wolfson would not comment on whether Giddings had sent the agency such a complaint.
Leonard said Giddings had never complained about lead paint on any items and that Retro Toys had a combative relationship with Schylling. But Leonard held out the possibility that Schylling also would have to recall the metal pails because of tainted wooden handles. "I think we had a problem with those," he said.
The company has "been aware for a long time that there can be issues with paint, specifically related to heavy metals and toxicity," he said. "And so we test for that. We test five samples in a shipment and a sample of the wet paint. It is never our intention to ship a product with a known test failure report."
In the wake of the earlier lead paint disclosures in the industry, Schylling increased the testing of its products, Leonard said. He also said the company is planning to use a third-party testing company to perform tests during production.
"We work very hard to get this right, and it's been very difficult for us," he said, contending that "the real issue is that the Chinese are allowed to make lead paint."
Leonard acknowledged, though, that it becomes an American company's concern as soon as the products test positive for lead, as the Thomas & Friends top did in 2002. "It clearly is our problem," he said.
The Tribune purchased the Thomas & Friends top on eBay from a seller in Virginia and sent it to the University of Iowa lab for testing. Teresa Bowman, a chemist at the Iowa lab who helped conduct the testing, said it showed a lead content of 2.4 percent -- 40 times higher than the federal limit of 0.06 percent.
"That is very high, and that knob is the part of the toy that will probably go into a child's mouth," Bowman told the Tribune. "The chemist repeated the test and got the same answer."
Without an official recall, parents should take the product away from children and look for more information in the coming weeks, according to a government safety expert. Once a recall process is initiated, as happened Wednesday, it can take three weeks for a detailed recall notice. The CPSC Web site (CPSC.gov) provides information on recalls.
The woman who sold the toy on eBay was stunned when she learned the test results. "Oh, my gosh," she said when contacted by the newspaper. "I have three children and they've all played with it. I can't believe it." She said her son, who just turned 8, had outgrown his fondness for Thomas toys, so she was selling them on the online auction site.
Schylling is the only company that is licensed to sell the Thomas & Friends spinning tops. David Schylling said the company has been selling the tops for about 10 years and that for about a year the tops were sold with wooden knobs painted red.
He said that the company was aware that there were problems with lead paint being used on the knobs. "We have rejected shipments that tested positive. And they've remade the goods and they've used different paint and they've been accepted," Schylling said.
"The contamination can come from all sorts of sources. I don't know if they are consciously putting lead in the paint, but somewhere along the line they are getting contaminated. Clearly, wood is a problem area."
A spokesman for HIT Entertainment, the London-based company that licenses the Thomas & Friends brand to companies such as Schylling, said no officials would be available for comment. When told about the Tribune's findings, the spokesman provided a statement saying HIT "requires that its licensees manufacture to meet the highest standards of quality and safety and all of our contracts contain detailed provisions designed to ensure compliance."