So apparently it is still acceptable to use lead in children’s toys, just as it’s acceptable to use lead in women’s cosmetics. Because children rarely put toys in their mouths, and women rarely put lipstick on their lips. Or so the logic would go.
I learned this unexpected lesson recently when, in a rush, I let pragmatism trump principle, and bought a birthday present from Toys ‘R Us, rather than a responsibly-stocked local store.
It looked benign enough, with bright colored packaging and cheery font: Totally Me! Stylin’ Bead Boutique screamed FUN!!! in a 6 year-old girl sort of way. I imagined stubby fingers maneuvering the metal and plastic beads over loops of twine which would later adorn necks and wrists; I imagined pride at being able to create and then display the final product.
But I didn’t imagine this: “Contains lead. May be harmful if eaten or chewed. May generate dust containing lead.”
It was when I went to wrap the gift that I noticed the inconspicuous warning (written in a modest black font that seemed incongruous with the alarming content of its message). I scanned the package hoping to find something that would explain—in legal or medical terms—what it meant. But all I found was another warning which recommended the toy for children five years and older, given the potential for choking on its small parts.
The coupling of these messages demonstrated that Toys ‘R Us (the toy’s manufacturer and distributor) understood that the pieces could end up in the mouths of babes (because why else would they be a choking hazard?) and used lead all the same.
But age, in fact, is largely irrelevant: The tendency to sample inedible objects doesn’t stop at five years old. Many a teenage girl has spent hours fiddling with and chewing on her necklace, even if she’s unlikely to actually ingest and choke on it. The real problem, of course, is not whether the toy is used by a two or a seven year-old, it is the lead.
When I took back the bead set–and of course I took it back–the manager refunded my money without question, and stated that she too had noticed the lead warning as she stocked the shelves. (Which clearly didn’t stop her from displaying the item, or contacting anyone about the matter.)
So I wasn’t the only one who took note. But was I overreacting? And why did the toy giant affix the lead warning in the first place? To find out, I contacted Toys ‘R Us Corporate.
Surprisingly, my call was returned within the hour, and I found myself connected to a woman who sounded at once pleasant and weary. She explained that Toys ‘R Us voluntarily choose to label toys which contained a small–but legally acceptable–amount of lead after the company became aware that some autistic children have a negative reaction to the substance.
From the sound of it, the labels had caused quite an uproar among concerned parents like me—which she attributed to the label’s wording, rather than to the fact that lead was used in the first place.
The woman at corporate attempted to enlighten me about the process of toy production: To obtain the perfect hue or the sufficient sparkle, lead is required. At least if you’re trying to make toys on the cheap. She explained that there was no way that Toys ‘R Us could produce reasonably priced toys without using lead, in fact.
I argued on behalf of the underdog—the small, responsible toy company who makes wonderful products without toxic substances—who forsakes hue for health. She countered that most people in theUnited Statescan’t find such toys, and that such companies don’t make their products in sufficient quantity for Toys ‘R Us to buy and ship them around the globe. In essence, the good, safe toys are in short supply.
Despite her plaintive tone and seemingly earnest stance, I didn’t feel sorry for Toys ‘R Us, who–as she implied–was making the best of a bad situation. Then and now, I find it hard to believe that the toy giant can’t find a way to subsidize or collaborate with small, responsible toy companies to bolster production without compromising quality. Or to derive a new business model that would benefit not just shareholders, but those most at risk—children—as well as the planet.
Yet my brain began to dispense with some of its vitriol after that conversation, and I found myself wondering whether the public, as well as Toys ‘R Us, played a role in this problematic equation. Wasn’t it consumers who demanded a rainbow of color and a spectrum of shimmer, all at a nearly impossible price? Didn’t our addiction to mass-produced plastic have something to do with it?
This issue is one of chicken and egg, because toy companies prey on and foment our demand, and we, in turn, keep them in business by shelling out dollars for poorly-crafted crap.
As I sit typing on my home computer in my home office, it is clear to me that I occupy a seat of privilege; I have the choice to purchase toys from responsible producers because I am able to pay more. Many parents of limited economic means are faced with seemingly grim options: deny their children high quality toys (which are impossibly expensive); participate in toy lending programs (which are mostly wonderful–particularly as an adjunctive strategy–but which limit a child’s ability to form long-term attachment to a toy or to use it as a transitional object); or purchase low-grade, potentially hazardous toys.
You could argue that people from economically disadvantaged homes have an even greater incentive to buy toys of the beautiful and bejeweled variety, primarily because their income doesn’t grant them power to buy real objects of value and note. Basic wooden toys in primary colors—as opposed to flashy, mechanized ones–may denote poverty or lack, rather than conscious choice. And people of all economic classes get roped into a system that associates status with possessions, happiness with things.
Then there’s the role of symbolism: Maybe a girl who has grown up in substandard housing has more need for a pink, plastic tiara—and all the stability and privilege it represents—than one who lives behind gates on a gently sloping hill.
On the other hand, it’s likely that kids need fantasy and imaginary play more than anything—a way to escape the very real drama that comes with tyrannical parents or high-pressure schools or rat-infested bedrooms or food insecurity. The actual toy may be less important than an unhurried schedule and a safe, nurturing space in which to play and practice at life.
If that’s the case, then shimmer is overrated. And lead is inexcusable, no matter how you slice (or melt) it.
Have you seen these warnings? What do you think about the use of lead in toys?
To learn more about how our highly commercialized culture affects children, visit the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood; to learn more about lead in toys, the CDC has some basic information, or you can click here to learn more about advocacy efforts to eliminate lead.