June 13, 2007 -- One of the most-beloved toys in the world has joined the growing list of Chinese-made products to be pulled from store shelves for safety reasons.
RC2 Corp., which sells Thomas the Tank Engine toys, warned parents Wednesday to stop their children from using 1.5 million Thomas & Friends wooden railway vehicles and set components because their surface paint contains lead, a toxin that's dangerous if swallowed.
"Consumers should take the recalled toys away from young children immediately," the Consumer Product Safety Commission said in the recall notice.
The company said this recall accounts for about 4 percent of the total wooden trains it sells in the United States (Click here for a list of the recalled products.)
"As part of a thorough investigation, RC2 identified the issue, isolated the manufacturing facility, and has implemented a corrective action plan," the company said in a prepared statement released by the PR firm Salmon Borre Group.
Salmon Borre Group refused to answer any questions about the timing of the investigation, the location of the facility or give urther details of what's been done to resolve the problem.
So far, the lead is not suspected of causing any injuries."At this time, there have been no reports of illness or injury as a result of this issue," said the recall notice. But consumer advocates said that doesn't necessarily mean children have not been injured.
"Even if the amounts of lead in one product are small, the cumulative exposure is the problem," said Sally Greenberg of Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. "You have it in bibs and lunch boxes and over a period of time it can become a serious problem."
The CPSC has stepped up scrutiny of products made in China following a rise in dangerous imports from the country. Last month, Graco Children's Products recalled 40,000 stuffed fabric blocks decked in pictures of apples, bananas and fire engines after dozens of infants gagged and choked on a plastic film covering on the toys.
And the toy company Hasbro recalled nearly 1 million of its popular Easy-Bake Ovens -- also made in China -- following more than two dozen reports of children getting their hands and fingers stuck in the oven, with some suffering severe burns.
China by far leads the list of countries making products that are recalled in the United States, accounting for 65 percent of all the recalled products in this country this year, according to CPSC. In 2006, China accounted for 233 product recalls -- nearly double the rate from the previous year, with lead a recurring cause among the recalls.
It contributed to a recent CPSC recall of 500,000 pieces of children's jewelry sold in supermarket vending machines, which contained dangerously high levels of lead. The incident followed recalls of bibs and lunch boxes also tainted with lead.
China Challenged to Improve Safety
A few weeks ago Nancy Nord, acting Chairman of the CPSC, brought her concerns about dangerous products to Beijing for a meeting with Chinese officials. CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said Nord told the Chinese that the United States expects their manufacturers to "build safety into the product" and "meet U.S. safety standards."
Wolfson said the agency has been working closely with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to step up scrutiny of Chinese products at the ports with a particularly "keen eye" toward toys, fireworks, cigarette lighters and electrical products.
But even with this increased scrutiny, they may not catch everything, according to Greenberg, who said, "There's lots that we don't catch."
"It's very hard for the CPSC. This is a small government agency with a small $63 million budget," Greenberg said. "It's got a lot of responsibilities. It oversees 15,000 products and there isn't the kind of leadership there that we would like to see standing up to the problem of imports coming in that may expose children to higher levels of lead than is safe."
Defending the CPSC's efforts, Wolfson said "CPSC has been announcing recalls with lead hazards nearly once a week for the last few months."
"Parents need to come to CPSC's Web site to track down our numerous recalls on lead hazards to children."
Wolfson said the agency expects to press the issue further when Chinese officials come to Washington for a summit later this year.
The CPSC's full recall notice can be found here.