China's Toxic Shadow
By Patricia Dines
The Next STEP newsletter
(c) Patricia Dines, 2007. All rights reserved.
Like bugs scuttling out from under a lifted rock, a stream of stories this past year have been steadily revealing the toxics hiding in Chinese-made products that are part of our everyday lives.
Americans were shocked this spring to hear about pet deaths being linked to Chinese toxics found in pet foods. The result was a recall of millions of mainstream cat and dog food containers.
But that was just the start of the tale, as diethylene glycol (an industrial solvent used in antifreeze) was discovered in Chinese cough syrup and toothpaste; unapproved drugs and additives were tested in seafood; and lead was found in children's jewelry, lunchboxes, and bibs.
At first, China sought to evade inquiries, probably to protect their billions of dollars in food and other exports. Then, in June, China took some action and shut down 180 food factories, after inspectors found industrial chemicals (such as formaldehyde) being used to make candy, pickles, crackers, and more. "These are not isolated cases," the government said, a change from past assertions that violations were the work of a few rogue operators.
The enormity of what's being revealed is highlighted by news of a Chinese executive committing suicide and an official being sentenced to death when improprieties were found. The Chinese government has announced a variety of new regulations and procedures.
The most recent news waves reveal lead paint in Chinese-made toys, with millions of products by Mattel, Fisher-Price, and others being recalled, including the iconic Big Bird and Elmo.
Lead paint in children's products is a problem that Americans thought we'd addressed back in 1978, when it was largely banned because children so often chew on their things. Even trace lead exposures can wreak havoc on a child's developing brain, reducing IQ and causing learning disabilities and behavior problems. Severe lead poisoning can cause vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, anemia, appetite loss, headaches, coma, and death.
Nancy Nord, acting chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), said: "There is absolutely no excuse for lead to be found in toys entering this country. It is totally unacceptable and it needs to stop.... This agency is going to take whatever action it needs to take to address that problem aggressively."
Unfortunately, the CPSC has little staff or funding to follow through on these bold words, as its budget has been systematically attacked by "business-friendly" politicians. Its questionable lunchbox testing methods recently also undermine its credibility. CPSC largely places responsibility for safety on manufacturers. Dr. Michael Shannon, a Harvard Medical School pediatrician and toxicologist, says, "Frankly, I think the biggest story is the clear failure of federal agencies to protect us. I'd call it a public health disaster."
This story also reveals the dark side of our rush into outsourcing and globalization. Sadly, we often find lower prices overseas at the cost of shockingly low wage rates, dangerous working conditions, environmental harm, and minimal regulation, in countries where fewer liberties make it harder for people to uncover the truth, let alone take action.
So what can we do? Unfortunately, there are no quick solutions, but there are ways we can support positive systemic changes and help protect everyone's well-being.
* Check recall announcements and warnings for any toys and products you might have purchased, even in previous years.
* Seek out non-Chinese products, especially those made in America with non-toxic features. This is possible, but can be challenging. China now makes 80% of the world's toys, and made 15% of the $1.7 trillion in goods the U.S. imported in 2006. A new book, "A Year Without 'Made in China'," describes the challenges one family faced in trying to avoid Chinese products. Also, Chinese ingredients can be included in American-made products.
* Don't buy products on price alone. Our drive for the cheapest products can pressure companies to cut corners. Lead paint is cheaper, after all.
* Insist that the federal government ensure that dangerous products do not reach American consumers. Better testing, regulation, and labeling are likely required.
* Consider testing your child for lead, if you feel they've been exposed or are having the correlate mental or behavioral symptoms. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, "There is no acceptable level of lead exposure for a child."
* If your company's products include Chinese components, consider increasing inspections and testing to proactively avoid problems that can impact your sales and reputation.
For more action information, see <www.healthyworld.org/china.html>.
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