Sunday, November 29, 2009

Shit happens... too much

With another wave of massive recalls this week, there's lots of chatter among parents about product safety again (not that it ever really goes away). In particular, many of the parents I talked are disturbed by the Melissa & Doug recall because it's a company whose brand is focussed on the wooden toys that many parents prefer at a price that makes them affordable.
Greenwashing is something that a lot of consumers are becoming increaingly aware of and particularly harsh about because it's a marketing tactic that strikes at the heart of their trust in the companies they buy from. Melissa & Doug makes their toys in China - they say that this makes it possible to sell toys at a price that families can afford and that they control their manufacturing process to prevent breaches like those that caused the massive Mattel recalls. 
So, let's get it out of the way first that no product is ever going to be 100% fail-proof all the time. It's just not. Things will break unexpectedly, there will bad batches and sometimes stuff just happens. I understand and expect that when say, a high chair is recalled due to faulty design or I need to install a new latch holder on my car seat. By large, companies who have these types of recalls have followed procedure and realistically no one has made any profit off the error (maybe the industrial designer?). 
The trouble with these toy paint recalls is that they expose a problem in a global supply chain that's proving very difficult to counteract. Relatively low but widespread contaimination can be dangerous very quickly for little bodies. While melamine isn't exactly good for the adults who consumed candies or other products made with the contaminated milk powder in last year tainted milk scandal, it wasn't deadly. It was deadly (or very harmful) for thousands of babies who drank it - both because they were exposed to more of it and because their bodies had a lesser capacity to deal with it. 
It doesn't take much lead, barium or mercury to have an effect on a child or infant - the way children play and are meant to play with toys means that they are greater risk of contamination upon contact. While national limits vary, the WHO established in 2003 that there are reasonable levels for these and other heavy metals in children's items. 
That doesn't answer the question of why it seems to be so difficult to rid children's products of these dangerous heavy metals - it just explains why it's important. 
To understand why lead and certain other heavy metals keep cropping up, we need to understand a little bit more about how paint works. Lead chromates are added to paint to improve the tone of certain hues like yellow and orange. These same additives make the paint less vulnerable to ultraviolet light, less prone to mildew and more durable against flaking. The lead additives are also very inexpensive and thus allow the production of a similar finish for considerably lower cost.
Other heavy metals have different functions - for example, barium in the form of barium sulfate is used as an inexpensive filler in paint manufacture, again allowing manufacturers to stretch the same volume of pigment over a larger area, resulting in lower costs.
Sounds great? Better performance, lower cost... what's to complain about? Well, nothing unless your kids are the ones playing with the toys in question. 
Lead is a well-known neuro-toxin - causing severe illness (even death) at higher doses. At low doses, exposure result in brain damage that may be irreversible, among other symptoms. All heavy metals build up in the body over time, so that the damage is cumulative - even more worrisome when dealing with children's toys. While this week's recall of Melissa & Doug toys referred to the acute signs of barium poisoning (vomiting, diarreha, cramps), there are also concerns over the long term links of barium to development of multiple sclerosis and other auto-immune diseases.
So that explains why it's bad for your toddler to exercise her new teeth on the toy whose bright yellow colour comes from lead chromates in a barium sulphate base and why the maker of the paints might have an incentive to make that paint anyway.
What it doesn't explain is how a respected brand who is subject to North American rules (both technically and ethically even if they weren't) ends up buying that paint even though the financial incentive at manuacturing ought to be well outweighed by the reputational and legal risk once the products reach consumers.
Can they do better at monitoring? Probably - but the essence of the issue is that mass production reduces cost by reducing the oversight needed on any one particular item. Does Mike Rainville in Middlebury, VT know more about what happens in his plant and his suppliers' plants than Doug Berstein does? Necessarily, yes, he does - and he can act on errors a whole lot faster. Then, again, Mike Lee at Sarah's Silks produces some products in China (and we sell them) and his dispatches from site visits show a very aware manufacturer who controls the critical pieces of his supply chain directly (ie: the dyeing) while creating beneficial economies of scale with home workers in China.
I'm not sure what the solution is, but I know where my dollars will get spent - on companies that absorb the full cost of their products, who have a personal stake in them and who mean it when they say 'from my family to yours'.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Thanks for the explanation of how lead and barium end up in paint in the first place, it made no sense to me.