Toxic toys: is China poisoning YOUR child?

The overblown scare about China’s lead-painted Big Birds and vinyl bibs has become a metaphor for Western fears about the ‘yellow peril’.

Is China poisoning the children of America and Europe with toxic toys, dangerous dolls and cancerous bibs?

If you’ve been following the frenzied public debate about the recall of dodgy Chinese products from superstore shelves in the US and the UK, you might be forgiven for thinking so. The voluntary withdrawal of 19million ‘Made in China’ products by the toy giant Mattel, alongside claims that Chinese toxic toothpaste and poisonous pet food is on sale in the West, has given rise to headlines such as ‘Lethal toy story’, ‘The toxic threat’ and ‘China’s toxic shock’, as if Chinese factories are pumping out a dirty slick of consumer stuff that is spreading across the West. Is China making us sick?

Look behind the headlines and it seems that, yes, some toys and various other products from China fall short of tough Western safety standards, but they are far from lethal. They’re not even particularly toxic. Instead, the ‘toxic toys’ drama has become a rather poisonous metaphor for contemporary Western fears of China, of its apparently rapacious economic growth and its strange, unknowable ways. Old concerns about the ‘yellow peril’ polluting the pure and righteous West are being rehabilitated in the coverage of this toxic toy story.

The good news is that Chinese toys are not killing our children. At the beginning of August, Mattel withdrew 1.5million toys with lead-based paint, including popular Dora the Explorer products and gangly dolls of Big Bird from Sesame Street; strict regulations in America and most of Europe limit how much lead may be used in children’s products. Later in August, it recalled 18.2million Barbie, Polly Pocket, Doggie Day Care and Batman toys because their high-powered magnets could come loose and, if swallowed by young children, bond together to cause intestinal perforation.

Yet as Mattel itself said, the recall was voluntary and ‘no cases of any harm to children have been reported’ (1). Furthermore, it is generally safe for children to play with toys that contain lead-based paint. As an expert toxicologist in Canada pointed out - in an attempt to calm Canadian parents who, in the wake of the recall, were rushing to their local doctors to see if their children were toy-poisoned - ‘holding a toy in one’s hands or pushing a toy truck contaminated with lead poses no risk’. Apparently it is ‘continuous sucking on such toys and putting them in the mouth for days at a stretch that is hazardous’. Children often suck on toys, but not for ‘days at a stretch’. A guide to ‘dangerous toys’ in Time magazine pointed out that ‘lead can’t be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, so a child would have to chew the paint off a toy and eat a significant amount of it before getting sick’ (2).

The driving force behind the lead-painted toy recall is not so much hard evidence that Chinese toys are a threat to Western children, but rather Western fears - and often irrational ones at that - of lead poisoning. High levels of lead in children’s bodies can cause physical illnesses, including diarrhoea and nausea, and can also, reportedly, harm children’s intellectual development and their IQ levels. Yet the question of what constitutes ‘lead poisoning’ has changed dramatically in recent decades. Today, the US Centers for Disease Control define lead poisoning in children as a level above 10 micrograms per millilitre in the body; in 1990, that same amount was described only as a ‘level of concern’. Thirty years ago, before the US banned lead from house paint and gasoline, lead concentrations in the body of 80 micrograms per millilitre were considered safe. As one American newspaper columnist pointed out, that earlier high level of acceptable lead ‘did not produce a generation of cretins’ (3). Today, a child could probably swallow a couple of Beijing-made toys and still only have a level of lead in his body that was considered ‘safe’ for his parents’ generation.

The stories about Chinese toys with loose magnets posing a particularly nasty threat to children, since swallowing more than one magnet could lead to their binding together and causing intestinal perforation, also seem jaundiced. Reports claim that in America since 2005, there have been 86 injuries and one death caused by magnets in toys. Yet it is a tragic and largely unavoidable fact of life that children will occasionally be injured, and very occasionally killed, by their toys. There may have been 86 injuries by magnets over the past two years, but there are around 250,000 injuries from toys in general every year in the US (4).

In 2005, the year when one American child tragically died from intestinal blockage caused by swallowing magnets, six American children died from choking on balls (that most old-fashioned toy), three died as a result of accidents on tricycles, one died from respiration problems brought about by blowing up balloons, and nine more died from various other toy-related freak accidents (there were 20 deaths from toys in America in 2005) (5). Should we recall all balls and tricycles from toyshops, too?

The role of Western irrationalism in driving the toxic toys scare is clear in the most recent recall. Toys ‘R’ Us stores in the US have withdrawn Chinese-made vinyl bibs because they contain tiny traces of lead. Yet while the amount of lead apparently violated the safety standards of Toys ‘R’ Us, it did not violate those of the US government. Tests on the bibs carried out by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission found that an infant would have to touch or lick the bib at a rate of 2,500 times a day to absorb anything like a dangerous level of lead, a highly unlikely scenario (6). It is worth noting that in America and Europe over the past 10 years there have been some quite crazed campaigns against the use of vinyl in children’s products, often led by environmentalists who describe vinyl as the ‘dirty plastic’, the lead in which might ‘leach out’ and ‘poison children’ (7). In truth, vinyl has been shown to be safe. As Bill Durodié, author of Poisonous Dummies: European Risk Regulation After BSE, has argued: ‘[Environmental groups] have enjoyed some unfortunate success in provoking unjustified fear and uncertainty about the use of vinyl and associated chemicals, most of whose benefits far outweigh the risks of their manufacture, use and disposal.’ (8)

The real story behind the toxic toy headlines is not so much Chinese recklessness, as Western over-caution. Western society’s generalised and free-floating fear for its children’s safety, our often unfounded worries over what our kids touch, play with and chew, has attached itself, carbuncle-like, to new fears about China polluting the world. In the toxic toy panic we have an unholy marriage between two imagined perils: the peril posed by life in general to our kids, and the ‘yellow peril’ from overseas.

It’s no doubt true that China is cutting corners and taking risks in its manufacture of vast quantities of consumer goods. As in all early-developing nations, in contemporary China the rush to produce will frequently outweigh safety concerns. Yet for all Western consumer society’s narcissistic fears about being poisoned by China’s toxic toys, the people who are likely to suffer most as a result of Chinese corner-cutting are Chinese workers, whose pay and working conditions still leave a great deal to be desired. (Indeed, while China’s lead-based toys have not led to any reported cases of harm in Western children, the scaremongering about them has caused one death in China. Zhang Shuhong, co-owner of the Lee Der Toy Company that produced some of the toys, committed suicide in mid-August. According to reports he had devoted himself to the production of toys for more than 10 years and took great pride in his factories. Following Mattel’s toy recall, the Chinese government withdrew Shuhong’s export license, which had a devastating effect on Lee Der’s business and meant that more than a thousand of its workers lost their jobs. Under intense strain, Shuhong hanged himself in one of his factories. The West’s toxic toy scare has proved lethal in China.)

In this month’s frenzied debate about Chinese products we can glimpse the clash of two sides of the world that have very different priorities: there is China, whose priority is economic growth and speedy and cheap manufacture; and there are America and Europe, where in recent years safety - especially child safety - has become the organising principle of life in general. China is moving ahead fast, and in the process taking some risks; America and Europe are increasingly sluggish, and have made eliminating risk a major goal. From this viewpoint, the toxic toy debate captures a longstanding truth about Western fears of China: they are motivated more by doubt and indirection in the West than by any terrible threat from the East.

The idea of the Chinese as a pollutant has a long history. Today, the Chinese are seen as an environmental pollutant; in the past, as the American author Jess Nevins points out, they were seen as ‘physical, racial and social pollutants’. In the mid-nineteenth century, Western commentary was full of irrational fears that the Chinese might pollute the white racial pool with their inferior racial qualities, or pollute Western societies with their strange cultural habits. There was, in Nevins’ words, a ‘Western fear of the supposed limitless hordes of Chinese overrunning white countries’ (9). We can see the re-emergence, even the rehabilitation of these fears in the idea that the Chinese are now a ‘toxic pollutant’ whose toys might undermine Western children’s health and IQ levels and give rise to a new generation of cretins in the US and Europe.

As numerous studies of Western fears of the ‘yellow peril’ have pointed out, concern about China (and of course Japan, too) have tended to become more vociferous during times of acute Western crises. According to one study of why Western attitudes to the East shift back and forth: ‘[P]eriodic transformations in dominant Western images [of the East], from positive to negative and back again, indicate the tremendous malleability of perceptions of the “other” in response to specific historical circumstances, and especially in response to circumstances in Western nations themselves.’ (10) In times of Western flux, fear of the Eastern pollutant looms large. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a period of fin-de-siècle fears, European writers expressed concern about ‘Japanese and Chinese hordes… crushing under their feet the ruins of our capital cities and destroying our civilisations’ (11). In the Second World War, America’s demonisation of Japan reached fever pitch. In the 1970s, as Western countries suffered ‘oil shocks’ but the Japanese economy continued to grow, there emerged theories about the ‘unique national character’ of the Japanese that made them apparently more conformist and hard-working than we Westerners (12).

And today, a West that is shot through with a culture of fear looks upon China as an out-of-control polluting beast on the horizon. In the toxic toy debate we can see Western society’s debilitating risk-aversion, as it tries to hold back any product with even a hint of lead or dreaded ‘dirty plastics’ in it. We can see Western society’s fevered and stifling obsession with child safety, as experts warn parents to throw out Chinese-made toys and parents rush to medical centres to have their children tested. And we can see Western society’s fear of the future, in the widespread concern that Chinese pollution is damaging the planet for the next generation, and possibly even making American and European children stupid through lead poisoning (now the Chinese are polluting our IQ pool, it seems, rather than the race pool).

Many in the West are throwing their toys out of the pram in these debates about China. It is time to put away this childish panic, and welcome Chinese growth and its benefits to mankind rather than fearing it as a toxic pollutant.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen raised three cheers for China’s economic miracle. Brendan O’Neill argued that the extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin was a small price to pay for the transformation of that river into a source of work and energy for vast swathes of mankind. Nathalie Rothschild pointed out that where China was once criticised for its ‘red authoritarianism’ it now wins plaudits for its eco-authoritarianism. Sheila Lewis asked whether the rise of China should be seen as a threat or an opportunity for the West. Daniel Ben-Ami asked who’s afraid of economic growth?. Or read more at spiked issue China.

(1) Major toy recall hits SA, Fin 24 New Zealand, 15 August 2007

(2) Troubles in the toy chest, Time, 15 August 2007

(3) Where were you in ‘72?, National Examiner, 23 August 2007

(4) Reported toy-related deaths to children 0-14 calendar year 2005, US Consumer Product Safety Commission, October 2006

(5) Reported toy-related deaths to children 0-14 calendar year 2005, US Consumer Product Safety Commission, October 2006

(6) The downside of the $39 DVD player, ABC News, 22 August 2007

(7) Cotton or vinyl? Concern over baby bibs, ABC Local News, 15 August 2007

(8) Poisonous Propaganda: An Anti-Vinyl Agenda, Bill Durodié, CEI publications, June 2000

(9) On Yellow Peril thrillers, Jess Nevins, Violet Books, 2001

(10) From ‘yellow peril’ to ‘Japan bashing’: historical images of Japan in the West, in Interpreting Japan, Murdoch University, 2006

(11) From ‘yellow peril’ to ‘Japan bashing’: historical images of Japan in the West, in Interpreting Japan, Murdoch University, 2006

(12) From ‘yellow peril’ to ‘Japan bashing’: historical images of Japan in the West, in Interpreting Japan, Murdoch University, 2006

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