The lead-tainted toy scare that hammered the industry and frightened parents last holiday season has eased, but there are still concerns that problem toys may still be out there.
"I don't think at this point that anyone who makes a toy is looking to save a little bit extra on the margin by using cheap materials," says Michael Green, executive director of the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, Calif. "But I am not confident that they're all going to be able to do the job and get the lead out."
Recalls of toys or children's products because of lead paint or lead content are down sharply, from a record 112 in 2007 to 64 this year. There were 20 lead recalls in 2006 and only 13 in 2005.
The number of lead recalls this year worries Nancy Cowles, executive director of Chicago-based Kids In Danger.
"Progress is being made, but parents still need to be concerned about brightly painted or brightly colored plastic toys," said Cowles. "There's still lead out there on products."
Even though lead has been banned in paint in the United States since the 1970s, it has still turned up in millions of toys in recent years. Lead poisoning can cause irreversible learning disabilities, behavioral problems and, at very high levels, seizures, coma and death.
An Associated Press analysis of Consumer Product Safety Commission data shows most of this year's recalls were not from the big toy makers, but from smaller companies, and most of the products were made in China. The rest came from Vietnam, India, Peru, Taiwan and Korea.
Last year's record recalls spurred action this summer in Congress, which passed new rules aimed at ensuring nearly lead-free toys and children's products. But the widely praised limits don't kick in early enough to have an impact on this holiday shopping season.
Mattel and Hasbro say their products are already rigorously tested for lead.
Both companies test the paint and other raw materials used in their toys before manufacturing. They then take test samples during the manufacturing process and later test the finished product. Mattel kicked up random inspections at Chinese factories amid a string of recalls last year, including a recall of more than 600,000 Barbie accessory toys.
Acting Consumer Product Safety Commission chair Nancy Nord says parents should feel reassured.
"It's very important that parents have a sense of perspective here. There are 3 billion toys sold each year and the vast majority are safe for children," Nord said in an AP interview.
Nord initially resisted the new consumer safety bill, telling Congress last fall the new lead limits would divert resources from existing enforcement. She has since praised the new law.
The current limit on lead paint on a children's product stands at 600 parts per million. It would be lowered to 90 ppm next summer as part of the new law. Children's advocates say 600 ppm is dangerous, especially for young babies who often mouth toys.
There is no federal limit on the lead content within toys. The congressional legislation imposes one. The new limit will be phased in, beginning with a 600 ppm limit in February. That would drop to 300 ppm in August and then to 100 ppm, if the commission determines that's feasible.
The new law also requires mandatory third-party toy testing; bans a type of chemical, called phthalates, widely used to make plastic products softer and more flexible; and strengthens the power of and increases funding for the commission.