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 December 2007

Interview with Joan Lawrence,
Toy Industry Association

As described in the article, "ASTM International Assists U.S. Congress in Review of Toy Safety Issues," by Jeffrey Grove and Katharine Morgan, in this SN issue, ASTM International and its Committee F15 on Consumer Products are always working to keep toy safety standards up to date and helping to ensure that the latest standards are used by manufacturers and testing laboratories around the world.

Joan Lawrence, vice president of standards and government affairs at the Toy Industry Association in New York, N.Y., recently took some time to answer questions posed by SN about the toy industry’s response to a recent spate of recalls and public concern about the safety of children’s toys.

The public perception of the toy industry has been impacted by a number of high-profile recalls this year. Has there in fact been an unusual amount of recalls or is the press giving more prominent coverage to them?

There have been more toy recalls than usual this year. There are two reasons for this situation. First, there have been genuinely new issues, like certain small powerful magnets (10 recalls to date), which we have discovered can be ingested and cause injury to the intestinal tract. Second, the whole lead-in-paint issue led to a thorough inspection of all products in the supply chain to weed out any in violation, which in turn added a significant number of smaller recalls involving fewer units. In any case, there were more recalls than usual this year.

There has also been a heightened media awareness of recalls, in large part because of their increased number, but also because there has been a lot of focus on products imported from China. As a result, small recalls that would not have received coverage in prior years are now covered prominently.

Can you discuss the relationship between the toy industry, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and ASTM International Committee F15 on Consumer Products, and how they work to solve safety issues such as those raised this year?

Toys, and 15,000 other categories of consumer products, are regulated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Nearly 50 percent of the agency’s federal budget goes toward regulating toys and other children’s products.

Toys sold in the U.S. are subject to federal requirements as well as the requirements of the comprehensive ASTM International consensus standard F 963, Consumer Safety Specification for Toy Safety. ASTM Committee F15 brings together the various stakeholders, including toy industry and CPSC representatives, who work on consumer product safety issues; Subcommittee F15.22 on Toy Safety is charged with maintaining standard F 963.

What kinds of stakeholders are represented on Committee F15 and how do they resolve potentially conflicting interests to create voluntary consensus standards?

Subcommittee F15.22 includes members from industry, government, retail, and testing laboratories, and medical experts and consumer representatives. The members of the subcommittee all share a keen interest in protecting the safety of children at play. Consensus is not always easy, especially when you are talking about an emotional subject like children’s safety, but it is the commitment of all of the participants and their common goal that gets us there.

A recent example demonstrating the subcommittee’s commitment is the case of magnets in toys. When the hazard was identified, the subcommittee revised and published, in nine months’ time, a new version of F 963 (F 963-07) that addresses the magnet issue. As information on this issue continues to unfold and become available (with increased knowledge of the unique hazard posed by certain very small, powerful magnets when ingested), a special magnets task force continues to work toward ensuring that the ASTM standard appropriately addresses the issue.

Subcommittee F15.22 continually monitors safety issues related to toys, working with CPSC data to spot trends in incidents or consumer reports and determine if existing standards need to be revised or if new standards need to be developed. All subcommittee members are encouraged to help in this effort. Once a potential issue is identified, it is brought before the subcommittee and is assigned to a task group. The magnets task group is one of the more recent examples of this approach.

ASTM standard F 963 contains test methods that enable manufacturers and third-party testers to prove conformance to the safety requirements outlined in the standard. Where and when are these tests performed for toys manufactured in or outside of the United States?

Testing for compliance with ASTM F 963 is required by many manufacturers and importers. Usually this testing occurs in the country of manufacture where items can be pulled from a production line before shipping, but it also occurs with occasional spot checks of products as they arrive in this country. Testing is usually done by internationally recognized third-party laboratories.

In addition, in response to recent recalls, manufacturers and retailers are conducting massive retesting of products in the supply chain right now to reassure consumers of the safety of toys on the shelves for this holiday season. This retesting has resulted in some of the most recent recalls.

What is the toy industry doing to address the accreditation of laboratories?

The toy industry has enlisted the American National Standards Institute to develop a conformity assessment system that includes test laboratory accreditation as well as protocols for the testing and certification of products going forward. We have also called on the U.S. Congress to make toy safety testing mandatory. This two-pronged approach — with mandatory testing and conformity assessment — is intended to level the playing field by requiring consistent toy testing across the industry.

How is the Toy Industry Association working with consumers to inform and reassure them about toy safety issues?

The Toy Industry Association has a consumer-focused communication program under way, with a new, dedicated Web site and toll-free number (1-888-88-4TOYS) to inform consumers about recent recalls and the extensive efforts being undertaken to repair the toy safety assurance system going forward as well as to address consumers’ concerns. There is also an ongoing media program aimed at discussing the issues and outlining the toy industry’s response — in order to reassure consumers of the safety of toys on the shelves for this holiday season and beyond. //