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Recalling the recalls

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Student articles

Ryan Hicks

Last November, Michel Dumont discovered that his five-year-old son Sterling had been chewing on recalled Thomas the Tank toys covered in paint that contained high levels of lead.  

Dumont says the public simply does not remember the magnitude of the problem.

“The public has a short memory,” said the stay-at-home dad from his home in Thunder Bay.  “The average Canadian working family doesn’t have enough time to sift through the recall list.  It’s the size of a text book.”

Since the beginning of this year, Health Canada has recalled 84 children’s products, including 10 since the beginning of September.  The issue of toy safety exploded at this time last year when major toy manufacturers, such as Mattel and Fisher-Price, issued voluntary recalls on Thomas the Tank Engines, Dora the Explorers, Barbies, and Big Big World 6-in-1 Bongo Bands – to name a few.  At the time, the issue was top of mind across the country.

But since the election was called, the alarm bells have been silent.

“It was last year’s big story,” said Kathleen Cooper, a senior researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.  “I think people like to think that it’s been dealt with. And they want it to be dealt with.”

The Harper government introduced the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act last April.  This bill would have given more power to Health Canada to pull unsafe products off store shelves and to levy steeper fines against manufacturers who do not comply with safety regulations.

Cooper thinks that this led Canadians to believe that the problem was solved.

“When the announcements come out that legislation is going to be reformed, as they did last winter, people who aren’t aware of the details of the legislative process might not necessarily realize that it was just an initial announcement and that there’s a lot of work to do before anything is changed.  And all we had was an initial announcement,” said Cooper.

The legislation, which died when the election was called, “modernized product safety legislation up to a minimal point,” added Copper,  and it was, “still fundamentally reactive.”  

“It wouldn’t prevent toys with lead in them for example from being put on the shelf, it would only give them the power to get them off the shelf,” said Cooper.

Back in Thunder Bay, Dumont says he was scared when he realized his son was playing with toys containing high lead levels.  

“When I found out there was lead paint in my son’s toys that he had been chewing since he was three years old, I just hit the roof. I know what lead does to growing brains. It lowers IQ points and lots of parents don’t know that or they’ve forgotten,” he said.

He immediately took Sterling to get his blood tested for excess lead levels.  Sterling’s results came back normal.

“We dodged a bullet,” said Dumont, adding that he went through Sterling’s toy box, removing all the toys that were covered in paint that contained lead.

Lead in paint coating children’s toys has been the leading cause for issuing recall notices on children’s products.  Of the 84 children’s products recalled in 2008, more than half contained high levels of lead.  

Children and infants are most susceptible to the harmful effects of lead exposure because their brains are developing, making it easier for lead to be absorbed in the brain.  Health Canada’s website said lead “can have harmful effects on the behaviour and development of children even at very low levels of exposure.” 

Consumer safety has come up during the election campaign due to this summer’s contaminated meat crisis.  However, most of the attention has surrounded Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s controversial jokes and off-colour comments about the crisis, which has claimed the lives of 18 people.

Bringing attention back to what was once the number one consumer safety issue in the minds of Canadians and the media is challenging right now says Cooper.

“It’s pretty hard to get attention from a public interest group’s perspective from the media in the midst of a campaign when you have five different leaders to hear from.  It also hasn’t been in the news much,” she said.

Eighty per cent of toys sold in Canada come from China, where Cooper says manufacturing at the lowest cost is the bottom line and where there is little oversight into manufacturing processes.

Cooper says all non-essential use of lead should be banned. “The amount of evidence that we have to confirm that lead is a problem would fill a large ballroom, floor to ceiling.  There’s no doubt at all and yet we still aren’t regulating it properly,” said Cooper, who has been fighting for stronger chemical regulations for over 23 years.

She said that whichever party forms the next government will have to prioritize the health of Canadians when dealing with product safety regulations.

Right now, “trade trumps health,” said Cooper.  “The most significant problems are with cheap imports.  We are not willing to regulate in the way that we need to.”

Ryan Hicks is a student in the Master of Journalism program at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.