Chinese toys redux

I overheard on the radio that Mattel has made an apology to the Chinese government for its recall of numerous products – a huge symbol of just how mighty China is. At the time of recall mania there was a lot of China-bashing for its lax regulatory oversight (not so much what it meant for Chinese workers but for the Western consumers). Undoubtedly, the Chinese are not up to Western regulatory standards, but I thought this was strange given that the Chinese manufacturers were simply following the design specs of the mother corp, Mattel. And barely a word was said about the regulatory practices on the domestic (North American) front, which themselves have deteriorated in recent decades. Mattel seemed happy to let the story be about China, but looks like they took some serious flak from the Chinese and now are admitting to “design flaws”.

There are some bigger issues at stake with regard to toys. Loose magnets and lead paint may well be problematic. But I have seen some seriously nasty stuff on the shelves that is not facing recall of any kind. I remember some play balls at the dollar store that reaked of petroleum product, and would not want my child anywhere near the thing. The sheer amount of cheap plastic in toys is also cause for concern. Apparently, most of the crap out there meets our high Canadian standards for the little ones.

For a recent birthday, one of the toys received was a submersible mermaid kit that involved diluting into water a highly toxic substance (something like silicon silicate) that came in an unmarked plastic bag that a child could easily break open. Only when I read the instructions was I warned not to let the stuff get in contact with glass, wood or a number of other substances (it eats through glass in ten seconds, the sheet claimed), and that if it got anywhere near a mucous membrane to flush with water for half an hour then haul it over to the hospital. Needless to say, I dumped the substance in the garbage and there were no happy mermaids that day.

The issue is not about whether the product is made in China – the Chinese also make your laptop and most other high tech gear these days – but our own regulatory standards and what we will accept in the marketplace. Way back when they used to call this consumer protection, and yes, it does mean accepting some “red tape”. But I would be happier if we had a regulatory regime in place that did not place all of the burden on individual parents to figure out what is safe and what is not for children to play with.

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