Monday, November 5, 2007

Mattel Toy Lead Problem: No Surprise

Media reports from the last few months provide rich coverage of the near-daily revelations about lead paint in kids toys. The problem is one of lax oversight. In the waning years of the last century, politicians and various experts convinced American consumers that regulation was bad and deregulation was good. Maybe it’s a little too simple to say, “All regulation bad; all deregulation good.” Case in point: the toy problem.

The dangers of lead paint have been well-known to the medical community and public health officials for decades. Ingested lead is particularly dangerous to children, who can take it in and store it in their bodies. Lead is a toxin that causes injury to the brain and nervous system. It’s bad stuff, and we’ve known it for years.

Consumer safety advocates have focused on childhood lead paint poisoning arising from lead exposure in homes and schools. In the late-1990s, for example, our law firm handled a lead paint exposure case for a young child injured by exposure.

The point is that manufacturers and government agencies have known for years that lead is dangerous to children. But no one checked the Mattel toys.

Our public health system is set up in such a way that there is little if any advance inspection. As consumers, we assume that manufacturers test their products for safety. Many do, but not all. So the way we learn about a problem is from health reports or product failure reports that wend their way to the proper government agency.

In the case of kids’ toys, that agency is the Consumer Products Safety Commission, or CPSC. The agency has a mixed record to be sure. In the past it has taken action-—albeit slow, late and limited—-in the face of dangerous products. The All-Terrain Vehicle deaths and injuries in the 1980s provide a good case study. Eventually, the CPSC did something, though it took a long time, and its action was less than complete.

But these days, the CPSC’s budget has been slashed. As a result, it lacks the resources to provide surveillance necessary to catch emerging problems like lead-paint covered toys. There is more than a little irony here, as news reports in late October 2007 noted that the appointed head of the CPSC opposed increases in the agency’s budget. Someone should really explain to consumers why the head of CPSC opposes additional funding for product safety.

Maybe that would be a good thing if the agency was operating lean. But when it comes to kid safety, no one wants to see a child get hurt. And lax regulation that allows dangerous toys into our homes is unacceptable. All that is left—unfortunately—is the frustrating tool of a lawsuit to provide lifetime compensation to cover an injured child’s harms and losses. Why would anyone choose a lawsuit over prevention?

David F. Sugerman
Paul & Sugerman, PC

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