PUBLISHED: 3:49 PM on Wednesday, August 29, 2007
When toys can't be trusted
Cookie Monster is quarantined. Elmo doesn't play well with others. Explorers Dora and Diego are grounded.

The popular characters are among the 83 types of plastic preschool Chinese-made toys Fisher-Price recalled this month because they may contain lead paint.

When ingested, lead can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

The recall involves 967,000 toys sold in the United States between May and August under the Fisher-Price line of Mattel.

Courtesy photo
  This month 83 types of plastic preschool Chinese-made toys were recalled by Fisher-Price because they may contain lead paint. When ingested, lead can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems. The recall involves 967,000 toys sold in the United States between May and August under the Fisher-Price line of Mattel.
Learning that Big Bird could be toxic is like finding out your longtime baby sitter had a one-on-one confrontation with Chris Hansen on "Catch a Predator."

You thought you were a cautious parent.

You measured toys with your makeshift choking hazard-checker: a toilet paper roll. Some of you even dutifully retired plastic baby bottles for glass ones and plastic sippy cups for stainless steel after reading about health concerns linked to Bisphenol A A- the "bad" plastic.

Now you find out your child could be sucking on a lead-laden Giggle Grabber Ernie.

The recall sent you stomping to the toy chest, plucking out the offending playthings, while cursing big business that puts cheap labor before safety.

It's not like this hasn't happened before. In June, 1.5 million Thomas & Friends wooden railway cars were recalled because the made-in-China toys were potentially covered with lead paint.

Earlier this year, toymaker Hasbro recalled Chinese-made Easy-Bake Ovens due to finger injuries and burns.

Replacing the toys with ones we trust are safe is a challenge because 80 percent of all toys are made in China.

Legislation is in the works to expand the Consumer Product Safety Commission's ability to better protect the public and to require third-party testing of toys.

Toy manufacturers are currently allowed to inspect and approve their own products. Which is similar to allowing pharmaceutical companies test to and approve their own drugs.

It's enough to make even the most mainstream mom skip Toys "R" Us and seek out conscientious toymakers who shun mass production and put child safety first.

When you hear that one Easy-Bake Oven burn was so bad that a girl had to have her finger amputated, a hand-woven hemp teddy bear from Craftsbury Kids in Vermont never looked so good.

I'd love to be one of those organic mommies who only allow alternative toys from such businesses as Craftsbury, Rosie Hippo's Toys or I Golfini della Nonna.

I imagine such parents forgoing batteries for wind-mill powered music boxes. Dressing their babies in onesies made of soybean fiber (and calling it vegetable cashmere). Feeding them edamame using spoons made of organic bamboo.

I'd settle for my child shunning SpongeBob for a 100-percent Alpaca doll hand-knit by Peruvian artisans.

But there's one small problem: cost. Banning cookie-cutter, plastic fad toys for well-crafted heirloom ones is downright expensive.

It's the classic Catch-22. A $70 wooden Noah's Ark crafted by child-safety champion toymaker Haba costs more to make than the $20 Fisher-Price made-in-China version. Haba's ark is crafted in Germany with water-based paints, indigenous maple and beech wood and a whole lot more oversight.

Nor are you likely to find wooden toys like those sold at at your local Wal-Mart - yet.

One possible benefit from these toxic toy stories is that perhaps the recalls will make child-safe, green toys more mainstream. It used to seem unlikely, after all, that we'd ever find organic baby food in the big box stores. Now it's there next to the regular baby food.

Meanwhile, concerned parents can find green playthings in specialty boutiques and via Web sites such as, and

More are coming. In the fall, San Francisco company Green Toys plans to launch a line of bioplastic, domestically-crafted play tea sets made of corn.

Stop laughing.

Before you dismiss these toymakers, consider this: these smaller businesses, unlike the giant toymakers, have close relationships with their designers and workers. Being better informed on how the toys are produced means safer toys.

But just because a toy looks as though it was made lovingly in a solar-powered factory by vegan elves named River and Rainbow doesn't mean it's completely China-free.

Some of these small-scale U.S. toymakers have factories in China.

Just ask Barbera Aimes, founder and president of ImagiPLAY, a Boulder, Colo.-based green toymaker. ImagiPLAY is in negotiations with a Chinese factory. Aimes plans to travel to China this month to inspect the factory in person.

"We have checked them and the paints they use out thoroughly," she said. "We personally examine every factory we use and interview the workers."

Perhaps there should be new label: made (with care) in China.

Toy industry giants need to take a lesson from their smaller, greener counterparts and put child safety above low production costs.

Until that changes, expect to see more recalls and more children at risk.

Now, how much for that hand-woven hemp teddy bear?