Thu, Sep 13, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Why all the lead in Chinese-made goods?

A US team of investigators sampled paint supplies in various parts of China and in some 26 percent of the cases the paint met neither US nor Chinese standards

By David Barboza  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SHANGHAI

When Mattel, the world's largest toy maker, announced its third recall in six weeks earlier this month, the company asked consumers to return toys because they contained dangerously high levels of lead paint.

Toxic paint also turned up in several other products Mattel has recalled in recent weeks, and in about 16 other US toy recalls this year, including the popular Thomas and Friends train sets, Consumer Product Safety Commission statistics show.

All the products were made in China.

Why is lead paint -- or lead, for that matter -- turning up in so many recalls involving Chinese-made goods?

The simplest answer, experts and toy companies in China say, is price. Paint with higher levels of lead often sells for a third of the cost of paint with low levels. So Chinese factory owners, trying to eke out profits in an intensely competitive and poorly regulated market, sometimes cut corners and use the cheaper leaded paint.

On the books, China's paint standards are stricter than those in the US, requiring paint intended for household or consumer-product use contain no more than 90 parts per million lead. By comparison, US regulations allow up to 600 parts per million.

The regulations are supposed to safeguard health, particularly in cases involving children, where ingesting excessive amounts of lead has been linked to disorders including mental retardation and behavioral problems.

But enforcement of the regulations in China is lax.

"The standard doesn't matter," said Scott Clark, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati.

"Remember, in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, they had very high standards on the books, but they never enforced them. It was just for show," he said

Clark and a team of investigators sampled paint supplies in Shanghai and other parts of China in recent years, and in some 26 percent of the cases, they said, the paint met neither US nor Chinese standards.

Even goods at high-end shopping malls in Shanghai contained unacceptable levels of lead.

But Clark said China was not alone in producing such tainted goods.

"We also looked at India, Malaysia and Singapore, and only Singapore met the requirements," he said.

China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine -- which has some oversight authority over paint regulations -- did not respond to questions about the prevalence of lead paint and about the inspection regimen.

But some Chinese toy makers were forthcoming. They acknowledged that they use paint with high levels of lead; others said they knew of companies that did -- sometimes because lead paint is cheaper, sometimes because it is easier to apply to hard surfaces and it produces a richer color.

Zhang, a sales manager at Big Tree Toys, a company in Shantou, southern China, who did not want her first name used, said leaded paint was approximately 30 percent cheaper than paint without lead. She noted that some countries, in the Middle East for instance, did not restrict lead content.

But Zhang insisted that if her company used leaded paint, it disclosed the fact.

"It depends on the client's requirement," she said. "If the prices they offer make it impossible to use lead-free paint, we'll tell them that we might have to use leaded paint. If they agree, we'll use leaded paint. It totally depends on what the clients want."

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