Matell toy recalls lead to a review of current EU toys safety control


The toy recalls announced in Europe by Mattel Inc. in August and September, concerning excessive lead levels and lose magnets, have generated a lot of media attention and the issue has been fiercely debated by Members of the European Parliament.

In response, the EU Commissioner for Consumer Affairs, Mrs. Meglena Kuneva, has announced a two-month stocktaking exercise of the consumer product safety mechanism in place in the EU.

Following the recalls, information on the products in question was immediately distributed to the national enforcement authorities of all Member States via RAPEX (European rapid alert system for non-food dangerous consumer goods). National authorities were requested to closely monitor these recalls and to provide information on the recall success rates in each country. The Commission also asked the market surveillance authorities to extend their investigations beyond the items identified by the manufacturers in the various recent recalls of toys with lead paint and magnets.

The toys with lead paint were recalled because 52 parts lead/1,000,000 were found in the painted coating of the toys while current EU safety standards specify that a maximum of 50 parts lead/1,000,000 is allowed. The toys in which lose magnets were found also failed to comply with EU safety standards. Child safety toy expert, Martine Hoofwijk, from the Consumer Safety Institute in the Netherlands explains why lose magnets in toys pose a serious health threat to children: "If a child swallows two magnets or a magnet and something else made of metal, and data shows that this actually happens, the two will stick together in the child's intestines. If part of the intestine is caught between the two magnets it can tear or twist causing serious health problems. Surgery is often the only solution in the case of children swallowing magnets."

Speaking at a meeting of the European Parliament's Committee for Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) on 12 September, Ms. Kuneva defended the consumer product safety mechanism in place in the EU and rejected demands for new toy safety legislation. This summer's toy recalls were not a wake up call, she said. "We were already awake. ...Currently, 50% of alerts for unsafe goods concern Chinese products. China has been the priority for the European Commission in terms of consumer product safety for three or four years," she said.

The Commission will use the case study of toy safety to review the strengths and weaknesses of the current system. Ms. Kuneva defended the existing general product safety directive, and its "rapex" alert system for dangerous goods, which she noted would be reinforced under pending proposals on the EU's so-called "new approach".

Further, in her recent visit to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in July, Commissioner Kuneva made it clear that it is in the interest of both countries to build a strong co-operation and to expand and improve the EU-China product safety monitoring system. According to the latest RAPEX report, in 2006 most notifications concerned toys (24%), and overall the People's Republic of China was the country of origin in almost half the cases (48%). However, RAPEX figures do not fully reflect the level of non-compliance with safety requirements, since the degree of control varies between Member States and is based on sample checks.

During the summer the Commission also held two public consultations concerning the safety of toys. ANEC, the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation, and BEUC, The European Consumers Organisation attended both.

The first consultation was on the impact of revising the chemical requirements of the Toy Safety Directive. Both ANEC and BEUC stated that chemicals of very high concern should be prohibited in toys. In addition, the exposure to other potentially dangerous chemicals should be minimised taking into account other sources of exposure and the particular vulnerability of children. Only chemicals for which sufficient toxicological and eco-toxicological data are available and which have been fully assessed should be used in toys. This principle of using only approved and evaluated chemicals should apply particularly for toys for children under three years of age.

The second consultation was on the general revision of the Toy Safety Directive. ANEC and BEUC reiterated the need for a Comitology Procedure to be implemented. This would allow flexible adjustments of the Directive by detailing essential requirements such as chemical limit values, and it would make it possible to determine the scope of the Directive, i.e. which toys require an EC type approval. ANEC and BEUC also requested that an EC-type examination be imposed for toys deserving special attention such as toys for children under three and those which pose a serious threat to a child's health. Both organisations proposed that toys should be labelled with warnings on their inherent hazard. Warnings indicating which part may cause harm (e.g. "small balls") or what the toy contains (e.g. phthalates) are not meaningful to consumers. Additional warnings such as "choking hazard" or "chemical hazard" must be included. Safety instructions should be given to reduce the risk during use and foreseeable misuse. An annex should list warnings and conditions of use.

In the light of all these developments in the field of toy safety one message is very clear - there should be no compromise on the safety of consumers particularly when it comes to child safety.

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