Self-Described Toy Tester Will Go Through Your Stuff If You Pay Her

Every time there’s a warning or recall over lead-tainted toys–and it hasn’t happened much this past year, but check out our archives from a couple of years ago–lots of people get up in arms about not being able to trust the government or big business. Well, one woman has bought herself an X-ray flourescence (XRF) analyzer and now hires her services out to worried families, reports the Washington Post. For a fee, she’ll come to your house, point her gun at your kids’ toys, your heirlooms, the fishtank, whatever you ask her to test, and then tell you whether you should throw it out.

An XRF gun is expensive–$17,000 to $35,000 according to the newspaper–and it won’t measure soluble amounts of toxins, which is how the feds determine safety. (The GoodGuide/Zhu Zhu drama a month ago hinged on surface versus soluble measures of antimony.) But if you live in California, you can actually make money with the device. It’s sort of like a modern-day metal detector!

In California, which often sets trends for national environmental laws, a state regulation provides a financial incentive for private citizens to catch retailers that violate state chemical laws. Proposition 65 requires businesses to notify consumers when products contain chemicals the state says are tied to cancer, birth defects or reproductive toxicity. If a private citizen or group finds a product on a store shelf containing one of those chemicals and it lacks a warning label, the retailer can be sued. Most retailers settle the suits, and the citizen earns 25 percent of the civil penalties.

“‘Citizen regulators’ take toy safety testing into their own hands” [Washington Post]

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  1. nautox says:

    Who you gonna call? … Toy Busters!

  2. madanthony says:

    if a private citizen or group finds a product on a store shelf containing one of those chemicals and it lacks a warning label, the retailer can be sued

    I suspect stores will now put labels on every single thing in their store saying that it contains lead, just in case.

    I think people are taking the whole lead thing way too far…

    • Oranges w/ Cheese says:

      Not really, as it is dangerous. For the most part, in paint on toys it makes sense to be worried because kids put toys in their mouths, so that’s a given.

      Other worries, especially if the material is deep inside the toy your normal person wouldn’t be too worried unless they knew their kid regularly took things apart and ingested them.

      Again, its just a symptom of our culture. Parents don’t watch their kids any more, the 3+ toy guideline has been out the window for years and years, and parents would rather sue then be responsible for watching their own children.

      • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

        you mean if they were my parents? i regularly dissected my toys. hehe.
        but you make a good point, a lot of the worry depends on the kid’s behavior too. i distinctly recall dismantling some stuffed animal when i was a kid and taking the weighted pellets i found inside to my mom and asking her why my bear had “metal beans” in his butt… they were lead fishing weights to keep the bear sitting upright on a shelf.
        i can only assume that’s no longer a common toy manufacturing practice.

      • halfcuban says:

        Parents never watched their kids. I’m tired of people talking about the past as if somehow parents were amazingly more responsible then then they are now; there is a reason after all why child protection agencies first started coming about, and it wasn’t because every parent was amazingly responsible.

        • Chinchillazilla says:

          Thank you. My grandparents on both sides used the “ignore the kids and they’ll figure it out” approach for pretty much everything. It’s not a new phenomenon.

    • NeverLetMeDown says:

      This is why you see those “WARNING: This product/location contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” on every conceivable product, and also in a lot of locations. If you run a store put it up, you’re safe, but if you don’t, and someone finds that you’re using a cleaning product for the floors that’s on the list, you could be sued.

    • leprofie says:

      Absolutely not! Lead has a tremendous impact on learning, tendency toward violence, and prison population. Removing our exposure to it can only do good things.

      • Rachacha says:

        I don’t think anyone would argue that lead is bad, however, one needs to consider the source of the lead, and the bulk of lead poisioning did not come from toys.

        Chipping and peeling lead paint in old homes is a concern, and the general public has become aware of the hazard and attempts to properly rectify the situation are made (removing the old paint).

        Until 1996 when leaded gasoline was still available, the fumes from such gasoline would appear to be a major contributing factor in the number of lead poisionings in the US:
        http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/data/State_Confirmed_ByYear_1997_2006.pdf#page=4 The Blue line (indicating the percent of tested that had elevated lead blood levels) generally drops sharply between 1997 (earliest data available) and 1998, and has generally continued a donward trend.

        Most of the recent toy recalls involved an elevated lead level in a drop of paint on the product smaller than the head of a pin, so while it is an elevated level, it accounted for only a fraction of a percent of the total paint on the toy.

        CA’s Prop 65 warning will do nothing but dillute the general public’s awareness. If every product is marked with a dangerous chemical warning (even though the product may not have such chemicals) the public will ignore the message that the labels are trying to convey.

  3. sirwired says:

    That Prop 25 stuff is complete crap. All it leads to is every business owner that thinks about it putting up one of those “This establishment contains products known to the State of California to cause cancer” signs. Due to their ubiquity, they are about as useful as putting up a warning on a box of matches cautioning you that they can start a fire.

    • dantsea says:

      Those signs are like the real world equivalent of a YouTube copyright infringer writing “No copyright infringement intended,” in that just because you posted the sign, it doesn’t mean you’re now in compliance with the law. Try to find someone on premises with a hazard sheet or a knowledge of those chemicals/agents and 9/10 times, you won’t.

      Though you will at all Safeway supermarkets these days. Or so I hear. *whistles innocently*

      • Kitamura says:

        I dunno, technically the product (supposedly) meets federal guidelines, it’s just California that has more stringent requirements. From what I understand about said law, if you label something with “This product contains items known to the State of California to cause…” whatever you’re basically covered since the law only requires you to label products that exceed California’s requirements. Which of course means that everything is going to be labelled just so there’s no chance of getting a fine.

  4. GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

    For some reason I am reminded of the crossing guard who tried to slow motorists down. She wanted to clock the drivers and issue tickets. They said no. She then went to work carrying a hair dryer with the cord cut off. Brakes were applied and the children were safe.

    • KilgoreTrout says:

      I had a roomate that was on the local county rescue squad. Sometimes he’d borrow one of the squad trucks that look just like the trucks the county deputies use. It’d be parked in front of our house, so we’d take a hair dryer out and just stand by the truck drinking beer and pointing it at people. Fun times…

    • Beef Supreme says:

      I, for one, hope she was arrested and jailed for impersonating law enforcement! The nerve of some people…

    • H3ion says:

      In Maryland, they’ve installed these speed cameras. It’s kind of funny to watch traffic speed down the road; get to a speed camera and jam on the brakes; crawl past the camera; and then gun it again.

      Those signs appear on buildings all over California. “Entering this building may be hazardous to your health.”

      • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

        my friend lives in carrboro NC and they took down all the red light cameras because it increased the incidences of rear end fender benders at lights.

      • pot_roast says:

        Another thing has been happening with those cameras. Kids are using the system to target people they don’t like. Got a high school classmate that wronged you? Easy, find a car that is as close to your marks’ car as possible and put a fake license plate on it. Sometimes they don’t even bother finding a similar car, but the mark may still get the ticket anyway.

        Here’s just one of many articles about people doing this:
        http://www.wtop.com/?nid=30&sid=1556689

  5. oneandone says:

    Glad to see she’s not sitting down while using that XRF! That’s one of the few things I remember from my XRF training – don’t point it at your crotch, and don’t sit down if you’re examining something on a table.

    I’m not familiar with this model; maybe it’s less of a hazard. My lab had one of the old, cranky ones that looks like a brick and had enough radioactive material in it that I wasn’t allowed to take it out of the state. The XRF-while-standing pose she has brought back some memories.

    Slightly OT: If you have one of these and want to help reduce children’s exposure to lead, sample paint and soil instead. The levels in some areas of the country are astronomical, and the amount of lead the kid is likely to inhale is much higher than what they’d get sucking on most contaminated toys.

    • AnthonyC says:

      I work for a company that makes handheld XRF analyzers- not the one shown in the photo.
      These kinds of devices don’t contain radioactive material. They generate x-rays w/ electricity, and only when the device is in use. And it’s perfectly possible to use the device while sitting without pointing it at yourself.

      And also: these kinds of devices ARE used for paint and soil.

      • oneandone says:

        Good to know. My lab was holding on to one of the old ones, and it created a lot of anxiety when we took it into the field (mostly becuase the radiation safety guy at our institution was convinced that it might ‘walk away’ whenever we met up with some community groups, which would force him to call the NRC and lead to massive headaches).

        I know you can use pretty much any XRF for toys + paint + soil. My point was that if you have limited time, I think it’s best spent checking paint & soil, rather than toys. The article focuses entirely on toys, and I didn’t see anyone interested in having the woman check other potential sources of lead exposure (which imo are more serious in many parts of the country than the toy hazard).

  6. Temescal says:

    “In one well-publicized case of citizen testing, things went awry.

    A year-old Web site known as GoodGuide used an XRF gun to test one of the Zhu Zhu Pets, the electronic hamster that has become one of the best-selling toys this holiday season. The site reported that the Mr. Squiggles model contained levels of antimony, a heavy metal, in excess of federal limits. National media reported GoodGuide’s findings, raising immediate alarm among parents.

    The controversy raged for two days before the Consumer Product Safety Commission came to the defense of Zhu Zhu Pets, saying that the federal government requires a different kind of test for antimony and that the Zhu Zhu Pets were in compliance with federal standards. “

    No offense to whomever ran the test, but that’s what happens when a layperson uses scientific equipment with little to no training, and without doing enough reading. Of course I might be somewhat biased, what with doing quality assurance for a laboratory that does exactly that kind of testing. :)

    But yeah… If the media want real information, instead of lazily republishing the results of a flawed test, they could hire any of the dozens of other labs in the US to run a real study, with real quality control, and real FDA/EPA approved methods.

  7. The Cheat says:

    “…. And a little metal car that is suspiciously heavy, as if infused with lead” Give me a friggin’ break. The lead is in the PAINT to make the paint wear better and have a nicer sheen. The toys aren’t cast out of them or machined from solid blocks of it!

  8. diasdiem says:

    Hmmm… Yep, these valuable family heirlooms all contain dangerous chemicals. You should definitely get rid of them, for your family’s safety. No problem. I’ll haul them away for you, for a small additional fee. Let me just load them onto my truck here…

  9. thisistobehelpful says:

    Why don’t we just put a warning label on everything and have it say “something about this could kill you, use at your own risk”?

  10. Sorta Kinda Lucky Soul says:

    Oh, sweet Jesus, give it a rest.

    How did those of us over 40 ever reach adulthood without lead testing, seat belts, sanitizing every available surface, advocacy groups protecting us and telling our parents how to clothe, feed and educate us? Now industries are arising to feed the fears of parents, fed by “EXPERTS” (aka anyone who can find a soapbox and some shaky science to support their claim) and people are happily buying into it.

    We all know and understand the obvious, like lead paint is dangerous, but this is an example of how far overboard people have and are going. C’mon people, use common sense to raise your kids without joining in this type of frenzy.

    • Blueskylaw says:

      Here, here. Thank you for writing what I was thinking.

    • oneandone says:

      There are a lot of new hazards. Not as many as some people believe, and I agree with you on the silliness of sanitizing everything. But in terms of lead & other toxic chemicals in toys, there’s now a lot more cheap, dangerous crap in seemingly safe toys than there was 40 years ago.

      In 2006, a 4-year old died from acute lead poisoning after swallowing a cheap piece of jewelry (which came attached to a sneaker). There’s no reason that should have happened.
      http://www.medpagetoday.com/Pediatrics/GeneralPediatrics/2966

      • Rachacha says:

        The jewlrey that you mention was included as a promotional item for an adult sneaker, it was not intended as a toy or distributed with a children’s sneaker. While this is a tragic case, it was a misue of teh product, and an unforseeable inident that led to the ingestion and ultimate death.

    • lannister80 says:

      Ask those who didn’t make it to 40…..oh wait….

  11. Kenrob says:

    Having experience with XRF. To get a meaningful reading you have to calibrate the unit with standards having in the same matrix (because of the matrix of the material changes the response of the signal). Unless she has numerous standards, the readings from the XRF are useless!

  12. MsFab says:

    Ok this is just stupid. I’m a chemist & I work with XRF a lot, and those handheld units are practically useless. Not to mention, without a calibration curve, you have no idea the quantity of a particular element detected, you only know that it has been detected.

    This is just stupid.

  13. kaceetheconsumer says:

    I’m doubtful that a layperson could properly manage it accurately (and it looks like more knowledgeable people have said there’s calibration involved), but maybe if there were better alternatives so people could really see if corporations are lying about chemical content, it wouldn’t be necessary in the first place.

    For well over a year I’ve been asking around (including Consumerist and Consumer Reports) for someone to tell me conclusively if there is lead in my Rival Crockpot’s glaze or not, as has been reported, and as Rival at one time admitted to (saying it was lower than the FDA allowable amount, but I want zero) and now does not admit to, based on my multiple calls to them.

    I have no reason to trust the people online screaming that there is lead, and I have no reason to trust the corporation that has admitted to the use of lead and then denied it, and all I want to do is cook an occasional easy meal for my family that I can be sure doesn’t have lead in it.

    So while I’m skeptical about this woman’s ability to get it right, what the heck are consumers supposed to do when even places like Consumer Reports reply with the likes of, “Meh, we can’t be bothered to check that, sorry, you’re on your own.”?

    And for those saying it’s not something to worry about, I’m in charge of raising a kid to be a decent part of the society that you all live in, and part of that is doing my best possible job to keep her brain intact and functioning. If I did let things slide all the time and she built up lead in her system enough to lower her IQ or give her other mental problems that could be a problem for society, then you’re the same people who’d be screaming that parents don’t take proper care of their kids.