Some skeptical as China bans lead paint in U.S. toys

ByJayne O'Donnell, USA TODAY

— -- China, under fire for risky exports, agreed Tuesday to ban lead paint in toys exported to the USA but downplayed its responsibility for the spate of product safety recalls of Chinese products here.

The ban is part of a new "memorandum of understanding" signed by U.S. and Chinese product safety regulators. It follows three recalls this summer of lead-tainted toys from China by Mattel and dozens of others involving toys and children's jewelry from China.

"It is good that they're taking this first step, but they have to start enforcing it," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., says of China's lead-paint ban. Klobuchar sponsored legislation to ban lead — not just lead paint — in all children's products.

Consumer Product Safety Commission acting Chairman Nancy Nord signed the deal with Wei Chuanzhong, vice minister of China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. Under the deal, CPSC will help China trace recalled products back to their factories to help resolve problems, and China will step up inspections and testing of exports.

"Lead paint has been banned on toys for 30 years in America, and I'm glad the Chinese have acknowledged that," says Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who is holding a toy safety hearing today. "I'm very skeptical about this agreement, but I hope the Chinese will prove me wrong."

Wei says product safety has always been of "great importance" to China.

Children can get lead poisoning by sucking on or swallowing toys or jewelry containing lead. This can lead to learning and behavioral problems and even, at high levels, death.

China makes about 80% of the toys sold here, and nearly all recent toy recalls for lead involved Chinese-made toys. But Wei stressed that up to 80% of the recalls of Chinese toys were for design flaws, not manufacturing flaws such as paint.

While the China lead ban is new, much of the new U.S.-China product safety agreement closely mirrors the one signed three years ago by former CPSC chairman Hal Stratton. Both sides will continue to share research and improve communications, though they will now hold monthly conference calls.

"These agreements represent a beginning, not an end," says Nord.

Patricia Walker, a partner in consulting firm Accenture's retail practice, says problems with Chinese-made toys are weighing heavily on consumers' minds: "What we're hearing is that a majority of customers are asking about where products came from, and a smaller percentage are changing their mind based on whether it's from China or not."

Wei quoted a Chinese proverb: "Words are wind. Seeing is believing."

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