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Toxic Toys in Santa’s Sled? Women of Steel Take Action

Photo credit: Institute for America’s Future
Here’s where the nation’s toys are tested: A Consumer Product Safety “lab.”

The United Steelworkers (USW) union, like the rest of us, is outraged over the flood of toxic toys. But unlike the Bush administration and its disaster of a Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) chairwoman, Nancy Nord, the 850,000-member union has launched a campaign that enables members to take action to protect their children—and at the same time, see the connections between the nation’s unfettered trade and failed regulatory policies and the consequences in the crib and playpen. 

Leeann Anderson, one of the union’s active Women of Steel, says she never thought her five-year-old son Evan’s favorite Thomas the Tank Engine might some day poison him. That was before more than 30 million toys, including 1.5 million Thomas the Tank Engine toys, were recalled this year because of dangerous excessive levels of lead. 

It made me sick to my stomach to think that from the time he was a year-and-a-half, he had his Thomas the Tank Engine in his mouth and could have lead in his system.

Anderson did more than just pack away Thomas the Tank Engine and shove the problem aside. She and hundreds of other union activists are taking part in the USW’s campaign, Protect Our Kids: Stop Toxic Imports. She hosted one of the campaign’s first “Safe Home Sessions” last month, in which Women of Steel gather parents in their homes to examine how to find and remove dangerous products with the help of the USW Get the Lead Out screening kits. (The kits are available for free to anyone, for as long as they last, at www.usw.org, www.stoptoxicimports.org or www.protect-our-kids.org.)

In addition to screening equipment and information, the kits also provide information and tools to mobilize concerned moms and dads to join the fight against the failed trade policies and inadequate regulatory protections that allow dangerous products to threaten families and jobs.

As a new report by the Institute for America’s Future shows, the mantra of free trade at all costs and little or no regulation at home have combined to make the products we buy toxic and unsafe. According to Toxic Trade: Globalization and the Safety of the American Consumer:

Nearly $2 trillion in imported goods enter the United States every year. Since 1974, the first year the Consumer Product Safety Commission went into operation, U.S. imports have quadrupled. Imports from China double approximately every five years. Retail chains like Wal-Mart drive their suppliers to move production to low-wage producers like China and Mexico to insure the lowest possible costs.

These imports mean millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost to globalization, especially to China, where a lack of workers’ rights and safety and environmental standards is well documented. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the growing U.S. trade deficit with China has cost 2.1 million U.S. jobs between 1997 and 2006.  As Toxic Trade notes:

Trade with countries with lower labor standards, lower environmental standards and less stringent safety and regulatory regimes present[s] special challenges. The standards that American consumers demand and expect should not be lost amid the challenges of a global economy. Additional attention is needed before signing the next generation of NAFTA-style trade agreements.

So, even as corporations are sending U.S. manufacturing jobs to countries with terrible safety records, the Bush administration is deliberately undermining the CPSC, which is charged with protecting us from dangerous products. In sum, the report finds:

When it comes to imported products, Americans are basically on their own.

USW activists have hosted “Safe Home Sessions” since September, and the campaign is kicking into high gear now, with sessions planned in 17 cities, including: Los Angeles; Columbus, Ohio; Traverse City, Mich.; Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y.; Houston; Oklahoma City; Tacoma, Wash.; Des Moines; St. Louis; Tampa, Fla.; Louisville, Ky.; Charleston, W.V.; Indianapolis; Green Bay, Wis; and Nashville.

Lead can cause a variety of health problems, including learning disabilities, stunted growth, kidney damage and even death. One of the nation’s earliest pioneers in lead research, Dr. Herbert Needleman at the University of Pittsburgh, says he is “deeply disappointed that “decades of progress through research have been reversed.”

Products we made safe years ago through the regulation of U.S. manufacturers are now being made abroad and they’re coming in poisonous through a back door in trade.

The USW also is urging members to visit kindergartens, day care centers, churches or local retailers to make sure that the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recalled items are not in those facilities.

Says USW President Leo Gerard:

Until our failed trade policies are remedied, our families are going to remain endangered. How many more toxic toys are going to end up on our store shelves and in the hands of kids before our government stops protecting big business and does something about this crisis?

The Steelworkers’ campaign is supported by a broad array of consumer and environmental organizations, including the Blue-Green Alliance, the partnership between the Steelworkers and the Sierra Club. It also is sponsored by the Public Health Institute and the Center for Environmental Health. Also working with the USW is Marilyn Furer, the grandmother who blew the whistle on the leaded bibs.

The Bush administration prefers the public see disasters like an influx of toxic toys as unrelated to its corporate-driven policies. We know they are not.

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