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Scary toys
Forget naughty or nice. When it comes to toys, are they safe or scary?

The toy-buying season is upon us, but there's a cloud over the joyful forays up and down the glutted aisles - lead paint poisoning.

If you're a parent, you probably know that since August, millions of toys from reputable companies have been recalled because they contain unacceptable levels of lead paint ("acceptable levels" varies by state; the U.S. standard is 600 parts per million). All of the contaminated toys were made in China. Since then, so many toys have been recalled, it's hard to keep track. Here's a recap:

On Aug. 2, 2007, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the recall of 967,000 toys made by Mattel/Fisher Price. The reason: "surface paints on the toys contain excessive levels of lead, which is prohibited under federal law." Fifty different toys, including Dora the Explorer collectible figures and virtually all the Sesame Street friends from Big Bird to Zoe were pulled from stores because of excessive lead levels, in one of the biggest embarrassments ever suffered by toy giant Mattel, whose brands include Fisher Price, American Girl, Barbie, and Hotwheels, and whose character licensors include Disney, Sesame Street, and Nickelodeon.

Mattel, proud of its Forbes magazine ranking as one of the 100 Most Trustworthy U.S. Companies, moved quickly to voluntarily recall the toys. At a House hearing on toy safety a month after the first recall occurred, Mattel chairman and chief executive officer Robert Eckert passed the buck to China, where the toys were made: "Our systems were circumvented, and our standards were violated. We were let down, and so we let you down."

But the company's nightmares - and parents' worries - weren't over. In late August, the Disney/Pixar "Sarge" engine was recalled, followed by the Geotraxx Engine. In early September, 675,000 Barbie accessory toys were found to contain lead paint. The recalls have continued through November. Even American Girl Children's Jewelry, manufactured by American Girl Inc. of Middleton (a division of Mattel), has been recalled from American Girl Place stores in Chicago and New York, as well as the outlet in Oshkosh, due to high levels of lead.

It wasn't just Mattel. Schylling recalled toy robots and spinning tops. Marvel Toys recalled Curious George. RC2, makers of Thomas the Train and Friends (oh beloved, wholesome, wooden Thomas!), recalled more than 1.5 million toys for lead violations. Baby Einstein Discover & Play Color Blocks, winner of an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Award (the blue ribbon in the toy industry), featured a vinyl-like duck that contained 13,000 parts per million of lead, more than 20 times the legal safety limit. By November, the toy industry was in an uproar. The Chicago Tribune conducted its own comprehensive inquiry into lead-tainted toys, and concluded that "the problem of lead in toys may be more widespread than previously documented and that testing by manufacturers fails to protect consumers."

Whew. Merry Christmas, everybody, and Happy Hanukkah!

If nothing else, the Great Toy Recall of 2007 has been a wake-up call for American parents, many of whom are now realizing that most of the toys they buy are made in China - 80% of all toys sold in the U.S. are, according to a recent article in The New York Times.

If you're looking to buy toys made in the U.S., where the practice of adding lead to paint was outlawed 30 years ago, look to locally owned toy stores, with owners who've been doing their homework with regard to what's safe and what's not, and who often seek out American-made products.

There should be a blare of trumpets here, because Peg Scholtes and her daughter Jenna Hansen, co-owners of Capitol Kids at 8 S. Carroll Street, have been defending the ramparts of healthy toyland since opening their doors in 2000. They've never been affected by a toy recall. Scholtes and Hansen don't stock Mattel/Fisher Price toys or Thomas the Train and Friends or the dozens of other ubiquitous toys that get all the TV airtime.

They do carry fun, brainy toys made in Canada, Europe, Thailand and the U.S. Some are made in China, too, but Scholtes and Hansen keep a dossier at the front counter with detailed information on all of their vendors, including reports of their testing and safety standards. The countries of origin of many of their toys are indicated by flags on the store shelves.

"We've increased our orders of American toys this year, but we've always tried to carry them," she says. "A lot of those smaller toy companies don't have the money to go to Toy Fair or hire reps, so we seek them out."

Nancy Nigl, owner of Playthings at Hilldale Mall, says she was not affected by the recalls either, but has fielded dozens of questions from concerned customers.

"People want to know how we know that our products are lead-free, and whether we carry American-made products," she says. "It's been a great opportunity to point out American- and European-made toys."

To address customers' concerns, she's been putting together the same kind of file of vendors' safety standards. She feels comfortable that her vendors already had policies in place to keep their products safe. "But we are keeping a watchful eye on the CPSC webpage," she says. "We're now more likely to ask new vendors what their safety policies are."

Parents know that "healthy" toys are better, but they're also more expensive - right?

"We have toys in a wide range of prices," Scholtes says. "Slinky is made in the U.S. We have American-made trains."

Scholtes welcomes kids to try out many of the toys in the store.

Other Midwest-made favorites include: Uncle Goose Blocks (wooden alphabet blocks, in Braille, English, Hebrew, Norwegian, Polish, Italian, Spanish, French, Swedish, Russian and Latin), made in Michigan; BEKA wooden easels, puppet theaters and unit blocks, made in Minnesota; TEDCO's nifty gyroscopes and other science items, made in Indiana; Repologue's globes for kids, including a cool illuminated one, made in Illinois.

Happy Bambino (2045 Atwood Ave.) carries Maxim's wooden Saddlebrook stable and corral and play treehouse, toy kitchens and playhouses, a deluxe pirate ship and other toys that use the imagination.

One tiny U.S. toy company based in Missouri, Whittle Shortline Railroad Company, makes wooden trains that are compatible with all Brio and Thomas tracks.

"Since the recalls, Whittle has been on the Today show and all over the news," says Scholtes. "Their business has just exploded, and they're struggling to meet the demand for their 100% American-made product."

Nice problem for a U.S. toy company to have. Let's hope it's a trend.

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