'Tis the season for Michael Ng, who is preparing for the upcoming holidays by attaching an extremely vicious-looking metal clamp to a teddy bear.
The less we tell you about Ng the better, since he often works undercover, except to say he's a safety investigator for the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the type of soft-spoken, friendly guy you would not expect to spend his days in a laboratory prodding stuffed animals with sharp things. The bear we can describe in some more detail: brown plush, embroidered nose, cutely clad in what appears to be sleepwear -- a blue and white plaid sleeping cap and a matching pajama top. The shirt has little white buttons, the kind you might find on the cuff of a man's dress shirt. These buttons, though, look a little fishy.
While supervisory investigator James DiGrazia holds the bear, Ng attaches the clamp to one of the buttons and then hooks it to a tension gauge. Kids older than nineteen months are capable of yanking on a toy with roughly fifteen pounds of force, so Ng will try to replicate that. But he barely has to apply half that tension before the button goes zoing, describing a wobbly arc through the air and landing on the floor. As anyone who has spent some quality time with a toddler knows, a button on the floor quickly can become a button in someone's mouth. Ng holds up a clear acrylic tube a little over an inch in diameter -- the size of a child's windpipe -- and drops the button right inside. Verdict: choking hazard.
Sure, you probably can't bear to think about Christmas and Hanukkah yet and even the department stores won't begin deluging you with holiday Muzak for another month, but the feds have been worrying about what's going under your Christmas tree since roughly May, says Fred Gassert, supervisory import specialist for US Customs and Border Protection. The federal agency works with the CPSC to test toys shipped into the country through the ports of Oakland and San Francisco. They have spent five or so months on this mission, wrapping things up last month in advance of the fall retailing blitz.
Toy-related deaths are more or less freak occurrences -- in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, the CPSC knew of only eleven. But injuries are much more common -- hospital emergency rooms nationwide reported 206,500 injuries caused by toys that year. That's why federal Customs agents perhaps better known for ferreting out drug smugglers and counterfeiters have been patrolling Oakland wharves for suspicious-looking playthings every preholiday season since 1987. If the agents find toys that look iffy, they send them to Ng's laboratory for use-and-abuse testing in which they are dropped, twisted, pried, and generally tortured in ways that simulate the thrashing they'd get from your kids. A toy intended for a child of under eighteen months, for example, has to survive being dropped ten times from a height of four and a half feet. It also must withstand twenty pounds of compression (think stomping) without breaking or cracking, and ten pounds of tension (yanking) without small parts flying off.
The inspectors also verify that the toys are properly labeled with hazard warnings and age restrictions, and pass them through a series of "test fixtures," basically metal or acrylic molds used to gauge size. In addition to the gadget that determines whether a toy part fits into a child's windpipe, there's a similar one for testing the handles of baby rattles, and another that is simply a hole an inch and three quarters in diameter -- if a ball fits through the hole, it's unsuitable for children under three. Any toy that fails these tests can be seized on the docks and banned from importation. The toymaker then has to show that the problem is fixed, and get permission from both federal agencies before resuming importation of the product. "Once we get a violation, they're behind the eight ball," DiGrazia says firmly.
Customs agents have become more and more involved with inspection as the percentage of toys produced abroad has grown. As of mid-May, US toy imports were up 39 percent for the year versus the same period in 2004, according to federal trade figures, with China accounting for 58 percent of the increase. "There are a few mom and pop stores" who still manufacture toys in the United States, Gassert says, "but as manufacturing moves overseas it's incredibly important for us to be more diligent."
That diligence has resulted in growing seizure rates. Toys were the second-most-seized import in the first six months of 2005, up from fifth place last year, according to Customs and Border Protection stats, and they accounted for 15 percent of all seized US imports. Some of this volume results from conflicting manufacturing and product safety standards. Last year, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, nearly two-thirds of all consumer imports recalled by American authorities had originated in China and Hong Kong. To cut down on recalls, American and Chinese officials have since signed a memorandum of understanding meant to synchronize safety standards between the two nations. "They will undertake greater testing and certification of products that come to the United States," DiGrazia says.
Although the CPSC examines products aimed at kids of all ages, the preholiday testing focuses on children under three, who are the most at-risk age group because they are most prone to putting small objects in their mouths. They also represent a rapidly growing segment of the toy industry -- according to the Toy Industry Association, while sales in most categories dipped slightly from 2003 to 2004, the demand for toys targeting infants and preschoolers, and for learning and exploration toys, got a big boost.
Of course, not every kiddie product is what it seems. To demonstrate, DiGrazia holds up a hot-pink pacifier. The safety inspectors frequently test pacifiers, clamping an eight-ounce weight to the nipple to see if it will separate from the handle and create a choking hazard. This particular binkie has some other problems, including a long cord that poses a strangulation risk. But its true purpose is revealed when DiGrazia presses a button on its back and dozens of tiny lights begin flashing beneath its plastic casing. Verdict: rave toy.
Somewhere, Santa is rolling his eyes.
We Do Recall
Five toys the feds plucked from Santa's arsenal in 2005.
Grow-to-Pro ® Pogo Stick
Hazard: Internal metal pin can get stuck, then suddenly release handlebars toward user's face.
Mayhem: Seventeen injuries reported, including lost teeth, facial cuts and bruises, and injuries from falls.
Aqua Water Scooter
Maker: CSK Auto
Hazard: Battery pack and cover can forcefully expel from the product.
Mayhem: Nine reports of the problem, and three of facial injuries, including lacerations and bruising.
Bright Starts Jammin' Jumpers
Maker: Kids II Inc.
Hazard: Plastic clamp that suspends jumper from doorframe can break.
Mayhem: Forty-nine breakage reports and twelve injuries, including bumps, bruises, cut lips, and one possible concussion.
Maker: Pokémon USA Inc.
Hazard: Sewing-needle tips possibly encased inside dolls' stuffing.
Mayhem: None reported.
Nu-Tronix Karaoke Cassette Player/Recorder
Distributor: Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
Hazard: Paint on buttons contains lead, which is linked to childhood learning disabilities, stunted growth, and hearing problems.
Mayhem: None reported.
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