Lead in Toys: Should Government Metal?

Rich Tucker

12/14/2007 2:56:17 PM - Rich Tucker

’Tis the season -- to worry about lead.

Yes, the big story from coast-to-coast this Christmas seems to be about the danger of heavy metal, and we don’t mean the Twisted Sister Christmas album. Lead is in our toys and on our lights, and we’re told only one thing can do solve the problem: More government intervention in the economy.

For example, at a recent Democratic debate in Iowa, the candidates insisted our country is under siege. China is “sending dangerous toys into the United States,” former Sen. John Edwards charged, and the Bush administration hasn’t done anything about it. “As president, I would end -- flat, bang, no importation of those toys,” Sen. Joe Biden added. Sen. Barack Obama agreed. “I would say toys cannot come in.”

Finally, Sen. Chris Dodd made it clear he wasn’t going to be rhetorically outdone. “When we got word that they were sending toys over here with lead paint in them,” he added, “the president had the authority immediately to suspend importation. He wouldn’t do it. Had that been a U.S. corporation doing that, their doors would have been shut in 20 minutes.”

Dodd has stumbled over the truth here, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill, he managed to pick himself up and continue on anyway, with a typical pander to Iowans (he vowed to buy only toys made in their state). The truth is that when a corporation, American or not, sells a dangerous product, it is quickly punished. Not by the government, which can take months to act. By the market.

Consider the food industry. You’ve probably never heard of the Topps Meat Company, and you’ll never have another chance to sample its products. Back in September the company was forced to recall more than 20 million pounds of meat after it sickened some 40 people. Six days after the recall started, Topps went out of business.

“In one week we have gone from the largest U.S. manufacturer of frozen hamburgers to a company that cannot overcome the economic reality of a recall this large,” the company’s COO explained. The Department of Agriculture also announced it would step up its inspections of the meat industry, but that’s like locking the barn door after the cow’s already been turned into hamburger.

No government inspection regime will work as effectively or as efficiently as the market pressure that shut down Topps. Rest assured other companies, worried about going out of business too, improved their inspection process long before Uncle Sam even managed to hire the new meat inspectors.

Returning to the subject of lead, it’s worth noting that the metal isn’t confined to our toys. “The sparkle of Christmas lights may be toxic. There’s lead on the wiring that millions of Americans string up in their home and medical experts warn that lead can be dangerous, especially to children,” reporter Greg Hunter warned recently on CNN.

A few weeks earlier, anchor Kiran Chetry had announced, “There is concern that the tree itself might be toxic or the lights or the wreath that you hang on your door.” Chetry went on to interview a woman from Florida who’d purchased a Christmas wreath that contained lead.

“I would like to see these warning labels on products outside of California. I, as a consumer, want to know,” customer Ana Elm, the woman who bought the leaden wreath, told Chetry. But that statement goes over like, well, a lead balloon.

There’s already a government warning for all these “dangerous” products. Chetry noted there was a warning “on the back of this box.” Meanwhile, “I couldn’t find a box out there without this warning that said ‘contains lead, wash your hands after use.’” Hunter reported in his story about Christmas lights. The problem is there are already too many government-mandated warning on products. That’s why so few of us bother to read the labels anyway.

And when it comes to assigning blame, we need to point the finger at ourselves. As reporter Hunter admitted, it’s not the Chinese who’re designing these products. “American companies are writing the specs,” he noted. So even if the product had been made in Iowa, it would have contained lead.

Too many people want the federal government to protect us from Chinese imports, when in reality our market is big enough to protect itself. Still, if lawmakers do succeed in cracking down on trade with China, they’ll be ensuring that we’ll have fewer toys for Americans to buy, and they’ll cost more.

That includes plenty of adult toys, such as inexpensive HDTVs, iPods and computers. Free trade has allowed Americans to buy these devices for prices so low they’d have been inconceivable just a couple of years ago.

So enjoy your new high-tech gadgets this Christmas. They may become far more expensive in the New Year.