Who’s minding the store … are the kids safe?

Editorial & Opinion, Wednesday, August 8, 2008

On Aug. 1, 2007 Fisher-Price recalled 83 types of toys in North America including Big Bird, Elmo and Dora the Explorer characters, because of excessive lead in the paint.

I found information on the recall, including photos of the plastic preschool toys, online at: http://service.mattel.com/us/recall.asp. I own similar products, I would guess last-years’ model. Knowing how my kids have played with them, I guarantee that if the recalled products were in a toddler’s house, they were in his mouth.

As a parent I am attuned to toy recalls, but this one is different because so many toys, amounting to almost one million units, are involved. It makes me wonder who is minding the store and looking after our kids?

Health Canada monitors consumer products on the market, but in this instance they were notified by Fisher-Product after one of their routine tests showed that 20 products in Canada were in excess of the allowable limits of lead, with 42,000 units sold to retailers across the country. Luckily, Health Canada is not aware of any injury or illnesses to date.

This recall feels different, as it is so hot on the heels of a series of consumer goods recalls including: an Easy-Bake Oven recall following a partial finger amputation (in July); the “Thomas & Friends” wooden railroad toy recall due to lead (in June); diethylene glycol found in various toothpastes at Dollar store chains (in May); and the major pet food recalls due to poisonous additives manufactured in China (starting in March).

These recalls will certainly damage China’s low-cost manufacturing reputation and producers will have to question where they can achieve high quality, safe production, at reasonable costs.

As a mother, I will be thinking twice about the products I bring into the house for the kids and what level of supervision will be required. I take my role as mother and protector seriously, and this extends to their well-being on the playground as well. In light of trusted brand name’s poisonous toys and others that can result in partial amputations, the train engine ‘issue’ at Bellevue Park seems suddenly more trivial.

I understand the nostalgia around the train and many people want to keep it at the park as a climbing gym. There is even a group on Facebook devoted to that purpose online, with over 4,400 members.

Arguments range from ‘my kids played on it and nothing happened to them’ to my favourite direct quote from a user I won’t name: “ya i have good memories of that train too. i broke my nose for the frist time by fallin off it and hitting my face on it”. Other posts suggest that the train is fine where it is if parents are there to supervise their kids properly. Agreed (except with the nose breaking post, that didn’t happen to me), but we need to remember that we live in a different world.

Twenty-five years ago when someone fell off the train, they didn’t sue anyone and everyone. Today’s litigious society means if something goes wrong (like you spill hot coffee in your lap) people want to blame others (and sue the pants off the company that served you the coffee).

The train is currently roped off because the city’s insurance carrier identified it as a high risk for injury and litigation. So now everyone loses, because some parents won’t supervise their little climbers properly, and may try to make an easy buck.

Times have changed, and so have our safety standards, including strict Canadian Standards Association (CSA) rules for playground equipment. The train could not meet those standards without altering it significantly, which would probably defeat the purpose, because it might not even end up looking much like a train. To expose the issue in another light, city workers can’t service or paint three meters or more above the ground without fall-arrest equipment. So, if the sand weren’t around the wheels of the train, city workers wouldn’t be allowed to paint the top of it without safety gear, so why should we let our kids climb on top of it?

I have photos of my daughter leaning out of the conductor’s window, but we would never have let her climb to the top of the train. I remember when it was first blocked off; she was desperate to go play in it. But nostalgia is not enough to overpower real safety concerns and the bottom-line economics of it.

As a taxpayer that doesn’t want municipal taxes to increase due to law suits or high insurance premiums, I say that the train should no longer be climbed on, just like the train outside at the Science & Technology museum in Ottawa.

An advisory committee is currently working on the train’s fate, and to appease the Facebook group, I don’t think that they plan to remove it from the Sault altogether. Perhaps a ‘do not climb’ sign or a nice decorative metal fence around the structure’s current location would suffice. Otherwise, moving the train to another location in the park away from the structures or somewhere downtown, where it is not interpreted as a play structure, and can be admired accordingly should be considered. To bring this all full circle, the train is probably also painted with lead paint.

There is little point in waxing poetic about a more carefree time when seatbelts and car seats were optional, and when risky playground equipment was prevalent. I agree that sometimes the new regulations get too restrictive, but overall, the CSA and similar agencies are helping to make our lives safer.

We are responsible for our children’s safety, but we need help when dangers creep into our houses unsuspected, like the toxic lead paint on a preschooler’s toy or necklace. Let’s focus our political will on things we should change, such as telling our elected officials that import/export standards for consumer goods should be heightened (or maybe we should just buy more local products, including hand-made toys, from trusted sources).

To be informed about product recalls and other consumer product safety information, subscribe to ‘consumer product safety news’ on Health Canada’s website at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca.

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