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Few things seem more harmless than a child's toy.
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Careful with the Toys
By Diego Cevallos - IPS/IFEJ

The scandal of toxic China-made toys has cast doubt over the health safety of products for children around the world, and in Latin America in particular.

MEXICO CITY, Aug 27 (Tierramérica).- Between one-quarter and half of the toys in the hands of girls and boys in many Latin American countries were contraband and many contain substances that are dangerous to human health.

Government authorities fight the health risks of toys with regular but insufficient operations, but the problem is not limited to smuggled items, as became evident when the world's top toy manufacturer Mattel recently recalled tens of thousands of toys in the region.

The regulating capacity of authorities in Latin America is limited.

Determining whether a toy is safe, then, falls to the consumers, who usually are focused on the price tag and not on verifying the quality of their purchases, say observers.

The toys recalled by the U.S.-based Mattel -- which reached nearly 20 million items worldwide when the company found they contained paint with high lead content and small, removable pieces -- represent just a portion of the Latin American market.

Estimates by business groups and some studies indicate that in Mexico more than half the toys on the market are contraband or illegal copies, while in Brazil these represent 25 percent of the toy market. Other countries in the region report similar statistics.

In mid-August, Peruvian police seized three tons of toys that reportedly issued a strong odor and showed excessively bright coloring. The official report said that most of the shipment was to be distributed to legitimate shops.

In Colombia, the value of seized toy shipments of dubious origin and quality totaled seven million dollars between January and August, while in Mexico an estimated 3.5 million tons of such toys were confiscated in that period.

The non-governmental Institute for the Private Protection of Intellectual Property, in Mexico, calculates that in January alone, when the traditional Catholic holiday of the Three Kings (Reyes Magos) is celebrated, legal toy sales reached 1.8 billion dollars -- not even half the estimated total for illegal toys.

"Because the consumer rights culture is new in Latin America and due to the lack of controls, toys are pirated, but even the legal toys -- not always free of dangerous materials -- pose a serious threat to children," Alejandro Calvillo, director of the Mexican non-governmental organization El Poder del Consumidor (Consumer Power), said in an interview.

Officials consulted for this report in several Latin American countries recognized that regulations fall short.

In Brazil, where toy inspections are conducted at random, Mauro de Britto, head of the anti-smuggling unit for Customs, said that 20 percent of toys are inspected and that it is one of the highest rates in the world.

But trade experts say that just three percent of the products Brazil imports, toys among them, are rigorously documented or tested for content.

De Britto noted that 100-percent monitoring is impossible, "because there is no way to regulate everything without compromising and paralyzing trade."

In Colombia, Gilberto Alvarez, director of public health at the Ministry of Social Protection, said that regulating the toy market falls under the jurisdiction of the ministries of trade and industry. But they "deny that responsibility" because they've found that "putting a face on it" doesn't produce good results, he said.

The authorities Alvarez mentioned responded that inaction on the matter is a result of inadequate legislation.

In Mexico there are toy quality standards in place since 1994, and enforcement through random testing by the Federal Commission for Protection Against Health Risks.

Nevertheless, like similar agencies in other Latin American countries, Mexico's does little or nothing when it comes to quality of contraband toys.

Nor is it able to detect problems like those of Mattel, which on Aug. 1 publicly acknowledged that some of its products, made in China, contained lead and would be recalled from the market.

With this case, the question of controls also came to the fore in the industrial sector.

In Colombia, the Ministry of Protection issued a regulation Aug. 15 whose purpose, it said, is "to protect human life, health and safety" and "establishes the health requirements that toys must meet that are manufactured, imported and sold in national territory."

Under the new regulation, similar to rules existing in other countries for years, toys may not contain certain levels of substances like arsenic, cadmium, lead or mercury.

In Argentina the government set new rules this month as well, including tariffs, in an effort to put the brakes on a broad list of imports, including toys from China, whose reputation has plummeted in the wake of the Mattel case.

In the late 1990s, Argentina banned the use of phthalates, substances that soften plastic, in toys for small children. Last year, inspections found several thousand products -- nationally made and imported -- that violated the ban.

Meanwhile, the Peruvian Association of Consumers and Users asked the government to enact immediately a law passed in 2004 that prohibits the importation and manufacture of toys with substances considered toxic.

The authorities in several countries are working with the Mattel affiliates or importers on product recall, monitoring processes and public warnings.

"Children, who are the most vulnerable consumers, are exposed to serious threats due to scant quality controls for toys, but especially because of widespread contraband," said Mexican Consumer Power's Calvillo.

* Helda Martínez (Colombia) and Verónica Rivas (Brazil) contributed to this report. This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS-Inter Press Service and IFEJ- International Federation of Environmental Journalists.

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