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Discount stores have toy trouble

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Doug Krizner: The International Toy Fair wraps up today in New York City. At this year’s convention, the word on everyone’s lips has been safety. Toy makers recalled 25 million products last year.

While those recalls were intended to get potentially harmful toys off stores’ shelves, the problem isn’t likely to go away soon — particularly at discount retailers. Michael May has this report from Austin, Texas.

Michael May: Bargain hunter Jennifer Martinez is going into this Family Dollar Store in East Austin. She can buy each of her 4 children a toy for a dollar. She takes a careful look, though.

Jennifer Martinez: If it’s something that’s dangerous for them, something that has lead in it, I’m sure — I’m hoping — it would say on there, give some kind of warning or something.

Martinez has reason to be vigilant. The dollar store has an entire aisle of costume jewelry, action figures and toy cars from China — just the sort of items recently found to have lead paint. But consumers can’t rely on package warnings.

Tom Neltner heads the nonprofit Improving Kids Environment:

Tom Neltner: The federal government doesn’t have a systematic way to identify the problem. It’s often left up to concerned citizens, consumer groups to test the products. We know of many products that have lead in them, that complaints have been filed on, that have not yet been recalled.

Last summer, when lead-painted Chinese toys made it to the U.S., big companies like Mattel invested millions of dollars to test their products and issued recalls. That’s not the case with the importers that stock dollar stores. And Neltner says that the federal government doesn’t put a high priority on small batches of cheap trinkets.

Neltner: If you’re the Consumer Products Safety Commission, and you’ve got so many recalls, hundreds of items with complaints on them, you’re going to go for the one with the million items, rather than just 5,000.

Which means that the government is effectively ignoring toys that end up in the hands of low-income children. A Neilson study showed that almost half of regular dollar store shoppers live on less than $30,000 a year.

Neltner: Some of the recent demographic changes indicate that now, it’s becoming a little more upscale, moving towards middle class and wealthy people who are interested in the garage sale aspect of it. Unfortunately, with that scavenger hunt, people aren’t aware or sensitive to the fact that there may be lead or cadmium in some of these products.

Neltner says that situation won’t change until the government moves from a system that relies on recalls to one that checks the safety of imports at the border.

In Austin, I’m Michael May for Marketplace.

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