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Originally published August 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 15, 2007 at 7:43 AM

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More toy recalls, more questions

Government regulators recalled more than 9 million Chinese-made Mattel toys Tuesday, hitting some of the company's most popular lines, including...

WASHINGTON — Government regulators recalled more than 9 million Chinese-made Mattel toys Tuesday, hitting some of the company's most popular lines, including Barbie and Batman action figures.

Mattel said 18 million of the products were targeted for recall globally, including the 9 million covered under the U.S. order.

The Mattel recalls raised new questions about the U.S. toy industry, the state of U.S.-China trade relations, and the ability of American parents to keep their children safe.

The toy giant blamed most of the recall on design flaws that could allow small magnets in some of its products to come loose.

But Mattel also said one of its Chinese subcontractors subverted its safety standards and used lead-based paint on promotional toys for the movie "Cars."

"I am publicly apologizing to parents," said Robert Eckert, Mattel's chairman and chief executive. "What we can assure parents is that we are doing something about it."

About 65 percent of Mattel's toys are made in China, but the toymaker has stood out among its rivals because it owns many of its factories there. About 50 percent of Mattel's production in China is produced in company-owned plants. But Eckert noted that despite Mattel's strict rules, he has recently seen violations among its subcontractors.

Mattel said it has increased its monitoring of Chinese factories and launched an advertising campaign in newspapers such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Still, with China offering the cheapest source of labor supply, Mattel, like other toymakers, continues to do business there.

No children have been reported harmed by the lead paint in the toys, which were sold at retail stores between May and August. But lead poisoning's effects are cumulative so it's important to remove tainted toys from children, Nancy A. Nord, acting Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) chairman, said at a Washington news conference.

Lead contamination continues to be one of the most pervasive reasons for toy recalls. The largest recall in CPSC history was the 2004 action that pulled 150 million pieces of toy jewelry out of vending machines due to high lead content.

Kids' jewelry or toys containing lead often are coated with a sealant, so they become toxic only after the surface has been cracked or worn away, said Irma Faszewski, quality-control manager for Environmental Hazards Services, a Virginia-based laboratory that does lead testing. That's why the professionals break apart an item to test it.

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"It's when you start digging underneath the sealant or crack it that the lead comes out," Faszewski said. "But children put everything in their mouths. That usually is where the problem occurs."

Nor does a recall end the problem, because only a fraction of recalled products are ever returned.

"From our perspective, this is all backwards. The likelihood of their getting even a million of these 9 million toys back is pretty slim," said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a nonprofit group that pushes for improved safety standards for children's products.

Cowles warned against blaming Chinese manufacturers for the problems, particularly those stemming from the magnets that come loose.

"This is not an issue of these products' being made in China. It's an issue of design, which starts with the American manufacturers," Cowles said.

Gerrick Johnson, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets, questioned why it took so long for Mattel to disclose the most recent recalls when the company incorporated a $30 million charge for recalled product in its second-quarter filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"You have to alert the public right away," he said. "I think it's a public-relations nightmare more than anything else."

The recalls will likely scare off many consumers this holiday season, putting a damper on Mattel's sales into next year, Johnson said.

"If you wanted to know what the top-performing brands were over the last year, well, they were Elmo, Dora, 'Cars,' and all of them are being subject to recall in some way or another, and all of them involve lead paint," Johnson said.

Compiled from the New York Daily News, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Florida Sun-Sentinel and The Philadelphia Inquirer

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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