Sunday, June 13, 2010

I'll Take One Kid's Meal, Hold the Cadmium

I think it’s great that McDonald’s is giving folks a generous refund for Shrek glasses it sold that contain levels of cadmium. You wouldn’t want to think that anything from McDonald’s was bad for your health.

Forgive me. Jon Stewart probably already went to town with that, and with better graphics. And, technically, the glasses were not part of the Happy Meals, and nobody is going so far as to say they are, "toxic".

Still, these glasses are just another piece of unnecessary clutter, targeting kids, (or those with childlike tastes) that are coated with what might, in some circles, be referred to has "something" toxic.

I’ll let others debate the source of the evil—was the paint on these American-made glasses made in China? Who gave Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California the anonymous tip, prompting her to request the Consumer Product Safety Commission to check the glasses? And, most perplexing, why would anyone in their right mind spend $1.99-$2.49 for a tumbler with a picture of a green, albeit, lovable, ogre to begin with?

Cadmium, as you might remember, showed up not long ago in children’s jewelry, and prompted a recall. It’s a carcinogenic metal. Not what you want on kid’s jewelry or, say.....things you use to drink milk.

But let’s give McDonald’s a break. They are not alone. In fact, it’s no longer surprising that anything sold for less than three dollars, or made in china (or in the United States with components, paint, or fabric made in china), and made specifically for children, might, at the end of the day, be loaded with toxic crap.

“Crap” is not a word I usually use in my blog. But, somehow, “substances” seems too dignified.

If only we’d had this kind of metal intrusion into our toys when I was a kid, I might have done better with the periodic table in chemistry class. There’s Cadmium (Cd, and atomic number 48), Mercury “quicksilver” (Hg, atomic number 80), and good old reliable Lead (Pb, atomic number 82).

Lead has become so commonplace, I am not sure anyone even blinks.

“Did you hear the one about the recall of natural black licorice laced with lead?”

“Ah, that’s nothing, I’m still dealing with the Timberland toddler boots with lead on the logo.”

Or what about the soft, cloth, children’s book, Rex and Friends, sold not at dollar stores, but Barnes and Nobel? Or the metal water bottles (hey, not BPA, just lead, folks) made by Backyard and Beyond, as well as Sports Authority, or the organic....chocolate that had lead in it? Or, the kids’ swimming suits from One Step Ahead. Or the Bauer children’s hockey sticks.

What is outrageous is the idea that this can happen and the reputation of a company is not absolutely destroyed.

Recalls, it seems, just happen. And, life goes on.

Take a moment to look at the list of recalled children’s products on this website—just for lead.

I feel very powerless in this situation.

Yes, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is going to expand its safety standards for cadmium in all children’s products, not simply toys, as it stands now. And the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act phases in a three year reduction of lead in children’s toys that demands its lowest level (100ppm) in August of 2011, next year, although some products might be exempt.

But, how exactly do companies that manufacture items for kids, pass the toxic buck? What does it take to stand up and say, "We make things for kids. We should double, triple, check that they don’t contain something....that hurts them."

Most moms I know try to avoid mixing in hazmats into snacktime. I know very few who say, “Hey, playdate today kids. Let’s make brownies. Gee, should we add a little pesticide and mystery metal along with the baking soda, or just use a wooden spoon treated with formaldehyde? Maybe some peanut butter with salmonella? Haven’t had those in a few months.”

There is one thing that strikes me, though, as I look at this issue. As with drugs, or oil, or trans fat: is there a way to curb the demand that feeds the supply?

I think there is, but we’d be going up against the toughest, most tactically agile group I know of. Yes, I’m talking about the birthday party goodie bag, and no, I don’t want to be the one to lobby this to the seven-and-under constituency. These kids already believe goodie bags filled with candy, plastic, and washable tattoos are de rigueur for birthday parties, and would probably ditch cake, scavenger hunts, moon bounces, and phone calls from The Hannah Montana, with less protest.

And, parents, some of whom show great creativity and imagination, not to mention generosity, in their goodie bag productions, might be loathe to skip out on a custom that seems to offer an extra thank-you to the guests who’ve come to celebrate.

But, generally speaking, I’d bet 10 to 1 that half the items in a common goodie bag are prime candidates for a recall for one of three reasons: they contain lead or something just as bad; they are choking hazards; they look significantly less fun on the floor of a kid’s bedroom than in the cute little bag they came home in.

It would be easy to say that items from the Dollar Store, or Oriental Trading Company (which are popular in goodie bags) are the prime culprits, but looking at the lists of food, toys and children’s items recently recalled, it’s not clear that’s the case.

Still, if we are going to hold companies to account, it might make sense to start with the ones that make the pretense of producing quality items. Dividing our attention among the things that, at their best, are useless pieces of plastic, and at their worst are carcinogenic appetizers waiting for accidental consumption, is just one task too many. It’s a waste of money and it’s a waste of resources—for parents and our planet.

I spoke with several moms about the goodie bag dilemma. Molly Thacker Snyder, the mom blogger who recently made national news for her work to end child hunger as well as unload 500 (plus) pounds of clutter from her house, said she tries to give kids something more green. “A plant or seedling, (indoor or outdoor),” or reusable tote bag. Another mom, Libby Seiter Nelson mentioned an idea that appears to be gaining some ground also among the moms I heard from on City Mommy: instead of a bag of goodies, a gift card for ice cream, or in her case, a game of miniature golf.

My youngest is turning two next week and I bought party favors at the craft store, Michael’s, several months ago. I found some plastic mugs—the kind with paper encased behind acrylic that can be removed and colored. I was swayed by nostalgia—I made one of those when I was a kid—and by the price tag.

I will have to send these mugs home with a note, explaining I grandfathered them into my new moratorium on junk, and from now on, I’ll be better. By all means, whatever you do, do not use these mugs as mugs. Henceforth, children will have the option of: a) some organic apples, b) a gift card for a round of Putt-Putt, or c), not attending our boring party.

Life might get pretty unexciting without happy meals, goodie bags, and playing Russian roulette with the recall of the week. But, I could get used to it.

Certainly, the preponderance of lead, cadmium, and other things in our kids’ toys is one issue, and the goodie bag predicament, is another. But, on some levels there is an overlap. It would take an actual dialogue among parents to explain the re-orientation of the expected bag of treats. I have a working title for this movement, but it’s not ready for primetime. Perhaps some readers have suggestions. Otherwise you might see this taped to the goodie bags at our next party:

Cut the Crap: Moms for a junk, lead, BPA, and formaldehyde-free celebration. Please don’t cry about it on the way home.


5 comments:

Jodes said...

Sarah- I am totally with you and will join the movement! We are so bad we don't let the kids have their friends bring gifts to the party. Instead we ask everyone to bring a book and do a big book swap. Everyone gets a book as a favor and we don't end up with toys that will drive me nuts :) If we give anything else, we try to make it something the kids might really use-last year Dov wanted a superhero party so the kids got capes.

We give the kids presents and the grandparents do as well, just so you don't think we are totally heartless.

Jody

Alyson said...

I am totally behind this idea. My son is late in the birthday party cycle (of our playgroup and friends) so I don't want to seem cheap for not having favors, but perhaps we can have a few talks before it all starts up again in September. I'm inspired, thanks for this entry!

Tim Morrissey said...

Another inspired post, Sarah. We all have the feeling of powerlessness (is that a word?) in dealing with the crap (appropriate choice!) foisted on us by everything from fast-food franchises to toy stores.

I'm doing a story for Public News Service which will run Wednesday (6/16) about lead poisoning in WI children - the numbers are scary. Over 450 thousand homes in WI have lead paint - 120 thousand of them have children occupying the structure. The legislature wants to "study it" for another year and then debate mitigation.

It's a long, hard fight, and it shouldn't have to be.

MollyinMinn said...

Your posts are so intelligent and unique and thoughtful. Thanks for inviting me to be a part of this one.

Cory said...

Sarah,

In our move to Narberth we managed to subtlety get rid of most of our plastic toys - it was a huge relief. Anyways, I think you might enjoy this article as it supports the ideas against purchasing constantly that I think you are alluding to in this post.
http://www.qideas.org/essays/from-purchases-to-practices.aspx
Another entertaining post - I was a few behind, but they are all great! Thanks! Brit