09/13/2007 07:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Drop in the Bucket: American Lead in Chinese Toys

News machines hate Cassandra-like prophecies. Someone has to die first to make real news...

Shortly after the first recall of Chinese toys coated with poisonous lead paint, I tried to interest a reputable news network in the larger aspects of the 'cheap lead toys are poisoning our kids' story.

It was clear that RC2, the Chicago area distributor of the Thomas trains was just a drop in the toxic bucket. I knew that if one Chinese manufacturer was willing to cut costs by poisoning North American children, other manufacturers would race for the same bottom line.

This was a few days after David Barboza at the New York Times was detained illegally in a Dongguan 'Thomas' toy factory. I emailed David in China and held his interest pretty well. After that the Grey Lady ran two simultaneous stories about RC2's troubles, and stayed on it story with regular updates.

Stories about lead poisoning in La Oroya, Peru also began to appear in places like the L.A. Times. And then other stories about lead poisoning effecting as many as 40% of Haitian, Cuban and South Asian immigrant children popped up in a variety of places...

Still, no one at CBC was listening. I even tried it out on a national news anchor's personal environmental specialist. Nada.

Something had to happen first.

Then, it did.

A Chinese factory owner committed suicide after Mattel-Hasbro /Fisher-Price began their ongoing series of toy recalls. Later, Mattel's president appeared before a senate committee to apologize again to American consumers and parents.

Taking time out from a nearly invisible campaign for the presidency, Senator Sam Brownbeck (R-Kansas) observed that "made in China has now become a warning label".

Hmmmm. Lead in toys has become a safe campaign topic.

But there's more...

To date, no one has asked where all that lead in the cheap lead paint that Chinese manufacturers use on American toys comes from?

Anybody wanna guess?

Yup. We send the stuff to China in toxic electronic garbage that violates a United Nations convention on the transboundary shipment of hazardous materials. America signed the 'Basel Convention' back in the last century, but -- cleverly -- never ratified it.

In a humorous twist worthy of a Jackie Chan double-take, the Chinese take our old vacuum-tube TVs and CRT monitors, (each of which contains 4-8 lbs of lead), and bust them up with hammers in 'breaking yards' that employ migrant workers. Then they dissolve the lead coating of the CRT glass in acid and after they extract most of it, they pour the leftover acid and lead mixture directly into rivers like the Lianjiang in Guangdong province.

Once that's done, there is a lot of really cheap lead left over, so they put it into toy jewellry and toy paint and send it back to North America where we buy it with the hard currency those clever noveau-entrepreneurs love.


Well, actually the lead we are not supposed to be sending them is currently poisoning their children. So do we really have any right to complain?

Levels of toxic lead among migrant workers' children in Guiyu, the largest of the e-waste breaking yards, now exceed three times the maximum hazardous limit for blood lead levels set by the World Health Organization. Women in the yards frequently give birth to acephalic (headless) stillborn children, one of the most extreme signs of toxic lead poisoning. But as long as money is pouring in, the Peoples' Republic does very little to police its environment or protect its workers. And apparently, they care even less about our kids so it's up to us.

In the first place, in order to protect ourselves and our children we need a national safety review board with sharp enough teeth to subject foreign manufactured goods to stringent examinations. Okay. On this everybody seems agreed.

But in the second place, we need to stop supplying the PRC with toxic substances that enable them to poison us, their environment and their own children.

Apparently, playing safe is not something former-communists are very good at. We need to show them the way...