Dear EarthTalk: There has been a lot of news about lead-tainted children’s toys being recalled. Where are these toys ending up and are they creating pollution problems there?
-- Michael O’Laughlin, Tigard, OR

The biggest problem with the recall of millions of lead-tainted toys over the last few years has been getting shops and consumers to comply. According to Mattel—which has issued dozens of recalls in recent years, including some 2.2 million Chinese-made toys contaminated with lead paint—historically only about six percent of recalled toys are returned. For those that do come home to roost, Mattel sells or reuses the zinc and some of the resins they contain, and then recycles as many of the other components as possible, off-loading the lead to companies that specialize in the safe disposal of hazardous materials.

But what becomes of the 94 percent or so of the recalled lead-tainted toys that don’t make it back to Mattel? Many of them no doubt have found a comfortable home with a child somewhere long before word of the recall—ignored or missed by parents—got out. Of the remaining toys, some of those that were recalled in the summer of 2007 ended up on auction website like eBay and business-to-business sites like—and then eventually into the hands of unwitting consumers, many of them overseas.

Unfortunately, there is still no federal law or regulation against reselling recalled toys, although some members of Congress are trying to change that. For its part, eBay has agreed to try to keep recalled products off its auction website, but enforcement can be a challenge.

The fact that these toys got out there for sale in the first place is the real shame, as research has shown that kids who have been exposed regularly to lead or lead paint have lower IQs and may experience learning disabilities as well as behavioral problems.

The good news might be that recalls are getting more exposure than ever, with better results. Illinois-based RC2 Corporation has already gotten back upwards of 70 percent of the 1.5 million lead-tainted Thomas & Friends wooden railway toys it recalled just last year. While there is still no nationally accepted procedure governing the disposal or recycling of such items, individual companies are bound by the laws of their respective states regarding disposal of the harmful materials. Those who worry about lead leaching out of landfills and into groundwater and soils would like the see the federal government mandate strict safety rules for dealing with lead and other hazardous materials.

Consumers unsure about whether a particular toy or other item has been part of a recall should check online at the “Recalls and Product Safety” section of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website. If a given product has been recalled, you can probably return it to the store where you bought it and let them deal with the hassle of getting it to the manufacturer. Or if you know an item was recalled for hazardous materials, you can drop it off at your local municipal hazardous waste collection facility. The website Earth911 provides a comprehensive national database of such facilities coast-to-coast.

Mattel Product Recalls,; RC2 Recall Information,; U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission,; Earth911,

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