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Toy safety on The Network

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Toy safety on The Network

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Party killjoy? Or justified safety cop? The European Union draws ridicule and criticism for a recent toy-warning that kids under eight should not blow up balloons unattended.

One British toy-shop owner tells a newspaper: ‘The world has gone mad.’

With December the biggest shopping month of the year, watchdog groups say the dangers are out there, with choking hazards and toxic chemicals topping the list.

One notorious case, millions of Chinese-made Aquadots – or Bindeez – were recalled in 2007 after some children were sickened by a cheap chemical similar to a date-rape drug.

The EU’s toy-safety directive may seem over-the-top sometimes, but Aquadots are just one example of a hazardous toy getting past regulators.

The EU injury database estimates more than 100-thousand toy-related incidents a year among European children aged seven or younger.

Chris Burns, presenter:

Now, wired into this edition of The Network is: here in Brussels, Stefano Soro, head of the European Commission’s RAPEX unit which is the EU’s rapid alert system for all dangerous consumer products.

Sylvia Maurer, who is a safety expert at BEUC, that’s a European consumers’ association which represents 42 independent consumer groups across Europe.

And Catherine van Reeth who is director general of Toy Industries of Europe. The T.I.E. represents companies and organsiations accounting for about 80% of the five-billion euros in European toy sales, and 50-billion euros’ worth globally.

Chris Burns:

Let’s start with a question to all of you, starting with Stefano… the Aquadots, or Bindees, were pulled off the market but not before a number of children were sickened. Is that a failure of the toy directive? Is it a failure of RAPEX, falling down on the job?

Stefano Soro, RAPEX:

No I don’t think it’s a failure of the toy directive or RAPEX. The accidents happened, by the way, mostly in Australia. The moment the problem was discovered, the products were pulled from the market. Nothing is perfect, but there was swift reaction and fortunately no serious injuries in Europe.

Chris Burns:

Silvia, is this just one example of this getting past regulators?

Sylvia Maurer, BEUC:

Well yes, I think this was a good example but indeed we need to take more action to withdraw also in Europe dangerous products from the shelves before they reach the consumer. That can only be done if member states do more activities on market surveillance.

Chris Burns:

Catherine, how come we couldn’t stop that before it got to the market?

Catherine van Reeth, TIE:

I fully agree with the importance of market surveillance. The reputable toy manufacturers certainly are doing their best to make sure that they comply with all the necessary, actually very strict, requirements – Europe has extremely strict requirements on toy safety – but we do need to make sure that everybody plays by the same rules.

Chris Burns:

Let’s go back to Stefano because, Stefano you can do a little bit of ‘show-and-tell’ for us. It is a doll that is a choking hazard. How common is that? And how many like those get past regulators?

Stefano Soro, RAPEX:

Well this in particular did not pass regulators. There’s a small part, that fits into a small cylinder, that should not be present in toys intended for children under three (years old)….

Chris Burns:

…that’s the measuring cylinder that determines whether it’s a hazardous piece, right?

Stefano Soro, RAPEX:

For small children under three, exactly. And this particular toy was stopped by Hungarian Customs and never made it to the shelves basically.

Chris Burns:

And that was made in China? That wasn’t made in Europe?

Stefano Soro, RAPEX:

This was made in China as the large majority of all the toys, including the very good ones, that are on our market.

Chris Burns:

Sylvia, what do you think about that? Again, are there a lot of those kind of toys out there that parents should be watching out for?

Sylvia Maurer, BEUC:

For instance, last year our German member Stiftung Warentest tested 50 toys and they found problems in 42 of them. This referred to wooden toys, plastic toys, dolls and so on.

Chris Burns:

Catherine, how come that couldn’t be stopped by your industry? Why do they get to the market? Shouldn’t you stop them?

Catherine van Reeth, TIE:

That’s exactly why we have market surveillance. I mean, at the moment we have extremely strict requirements, but there is a difference between reputable toy manufacturers and those people who don’t take the rules too seriously. So that’s exactly why we need market surveillance – to stop those. Market surveillance is part of the safety system.

Chris Burns:

Stefano, let’s look at another example of the toy directive working. In this case, an inflatable swimming ring with a band for that kind of use with kids – D.E.H.P. I believe it’s called – is the directive tough enough?… or not tough enough?

Stefano Soro, RAPEX:

Look, the European rules are the toughest in the world. We have a system which has succeeded in having the strictest rules in the world, and at the same time the widest possible choice for consumers, ever. But as Sylvia and Catherine were saying, rules are only as good as their enforcement.

Chris Burns:

Sylvia… tough enough? Or not tough enough… the toy directive here in Europe?

Sylvia Maurer, BEUC:

Well, when it comes to the chemical requirements I think we still have some concerns. First of all, the new requirements on chemicals will only enter into force in 2013, meaning there are still some years to go until some improvements can be made. And we also found that there are some important loopholes in the legislation. So from our perspective, the text of the toy safety directive needs to be amended to raise the level on chemical safety as well.

Chris Burns:

Do you agree Catherine? Or are you afraid then that there might be too much regulation and that could be a choking hazard for your industry, right?

Catherine van Reeth, TIE:

As Sylvia was saying, certain chemicals are being addressed and that will come into force in 2013. I understand her request to do this faster, but you do have to give the industry sufficient time to adapt to these things. We don’t even have the requirements to make sure we would comply with the stricter rules and how it would be tested, all of that still has to be determined.

Chris Burns:

Stefano, the Stiftung Warentest test that Sylvia mentioned said that one out of six toys tested had an issue with safety. Isn’t that a problem that the toy safety directive is not addressing?

Stefano Soro, RAPEX:

No, it’s not a problem that the toy safety directive is not addressing. It’s a problem of policing the market. And, by the way, I’ve seen the results. (The test was) definitely not a random sample of the toys that are on the market. They did targeted sampling, which is what they should have done, but it is not a random sample of the toys that are on the market.

Chris Burns:

Consumers demand cheap, plentiful toys. Is materialism to blame? This is another kind of question. Shouldn’t we just have better, fewer and yes, perhaps, more expensive toys?… Sylvia…

Sylvia Maurer, BEUC:

When we look at the problems it’s not always related only to cheap toys or to very expensive toys. When it comes to chemicals you can also have problems like substances that can cause allergies in very expensive toys. I think here it comes down to better regulation and market surveillance.

Chris Burns:

Bindeez removed the chemical from what we saw there, the Aquadots, that was the link to a date-rape drug. Is it better to maybe keep all chemicals out? Are some companies just looking at kids as guinea-pigs and just trying these chemicals to see if they work or not? Let’s go to Catherine on that.

Catherine van Reeth, TIE:

Certainly not. Absolutely not. There are very strict requirements. Some of our companies have existed for years and years. Our reputation is extremely important to us, as is the safety of our consumers. We would never do such a thing.

Chris Burns:

If they’re letting these chemicals get through, are these toy regulations not perhaps tough enough Catherine?

Catherine van Reeth, TIE:

I don’t think they are letting those chemicals through. In the case that you mentioned, clearly there was a mistake made and that shouldn’t have happened, that’s why it was very fortunate that it was caught and we were able to withdraw it from the market.

Chris Burns:

Maybe we can sum this up – do you think that toys are now safer than ever before or are there still real hazards out there?

Let’s start with Sylvia.

Sylvia Maurer, BEUC:

People need to be reassured what kind of toy they can buy safely, and there we need also the support of the member states to act and make sure that only safe products are in the shops.

Chris Burns:

…and parents should be checking websites like yours, and also perhaps the Commission’s site.

Stefano, you said earlier toys are safer than ever, but are they really? Children are still getting sick and getting hurt.

Stefano Soro, RAPEX:

There is a campaign that the Commission vice-president Tajani is launching now with safety tips for parents in the run up to the Christmas season. But if you think about the toys that we were playing with when we were kids, not many of them – with accessible batteries leaking acid, dodgy plugs, chemicals in paints etc – there is no golden age in the past. Toys have never been safer than today.