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US Toy Industry Seeks Increased Federal Inspections of Imports

U.S. toy company executives are calling for legislation aimed at strengthening inspections of imports. Their appeal at a Senate hearing Wednesday follows a series of recalls of Chinese-made toys, many of which were found to contain lead - a substance that can be lethal if swallowed. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, knows first-hand the dangers of lead in toys. The child of one of her constituents died after he swallowed a lead-painted toy.

"This issue hit home to us in Minnesota when a little four-year-old boy named Jarnell Brown died when he swallowed a little heart-shaped charm," said Senator Klobuchar. "This charm was given to him for free with a pair of tennis shoes. He didn't buy it, his mom didn't buy it, and he didn't die from swallowing it, he didn't die from choking on it. He died when the lead seeped into his blood stream. It fatally poisoned him, and it took a number of days."

At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association, called for a mandatory program to require that all toys sold in the United States be subject to standardized tests to ensure their safety.

"We are encouraging the federal government to adopt a requirement that all toys sold in the U.S. undergo inspection to assure that they conform to our standards," said Carter Keithley.

Gerald Storch, the chairman and chief executive officer of the U.S. retailer, Toys R Us, endorsed the call:

"We strongly support strengthening third-party testing requirements," said Storch.

The hearing came a day after China agreed to ban the use of lead paint on Chinese-made toys as well as fireworks, lighters and electrical products exported to the United States.

Nancy Nord, acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, praised the agreement.

"These are significant achievements," she said. "These agreements signal that the Chinese government is serious about working with the CPSC to keep dangerous products out of American homes."

But Nord faced tough questions from senators who wanted to know why her agency did not do more to stop imports of children's jewelry from China despite knowing that many of those products had been found to contain lead.

Nord says her agency does not have the legal authority to ban imports from China, but is seeking a change in regulations to address the issue.

That drew a sharp response from Senator Durbin:

"I could just tell you that what you just said is of no consolation to families across America that you are somehow caught up in a rule-making process, when you know that one out of five pieces of children's jewelry has dangerous lead content," he said. "Americans expect our government to protect families and children."

Durbin has introduced a bill to modernize the Consumer Product Safety Commission, boost its funding and increase fines on companies that are determined to have sold unsafe products.

The Consumers Union, an independent nonprofit organization, supports the bill, as well as the toy industry's call for more inspections of imports.

Sally Greenberg, Consumers Union's senior product safety counsel, says inspections cannot be left to Chinese factory owners.

"China suffers from the absence of a rigorous regulatory system and endemic problem of corruption and a lack of a free press, making it crucial that American companies doing business in China undertake third-party independent inspections and certification systems and make those systems transparent," said Greenberg.

China defends its products, saying most are safe. Chinese officials blame the media for exaggerating the problem, saying China would not be experiencing an export surge if its products were of poor quality.

China accounts for 70 percent of toy exports worldwide, and 80 percent of toys sold in the United States.