California Attorney General Jerry Brown has sued 20 companies, including Mattel Inc. and Toys R Us, accusing them of selling toys that contain unlawful amounts of lead and failing to warn the public of the health dangers.
Brown's lawsuit, filed Monday in Alameda County Superior Court, alleges that the companies violated the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, a voter-approved law passed as Proposition 65, because they didn't notify customers of toys in the marketplace that contained high concentrations of lead.
Lead, known to cause cancer and reproductive harm, also can cause mental and physical retardation as well as behavioral and other health problems in children. In adults, it can damage the nervous system.
The state's legal action follows a string of nationwide recalls by Mattel, Fisher-Price and other companies that make popular toys, including some Ernie, Elmo and Big Bird toys in the Sesame Street line, some SpongeBob figures, a "Sarge" jeep from the movie "Cars" and parts of the wooden railway series Thomas & Friends.
Some toys are coated in paint with excessive levels of lead; others are made of PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, that contains high lead levels. More than 6 million toys have been recalled this year because of lead, according to the state.
California is the first state to seek labeling of toys made with unsafe levels of lead. It's part of the state's right-to-know law aimed at embarrassing businesses into removing toxic chemicals from their products. The federal government doesn't require manufacturers and retailers to disclose this information but does have laws that limit how much lead can be used in such products.
"The federal government doesn't have a law like Proposition 65, which is designed to protect consumers," said Tim Sullivan, a deputy attorney general in charge of the case. "We're going to use the tools that we have to safeguard children. This is clearly a matter of concern for parents."
Joining in the suit was Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. If the suit is successful, the companies could be forced to pay penalties of up to $2,500 per day for each violation.
Notices to sue were filed by the nonprofits Center for Environmental Health and Environmental Law Foundation in Oakland and As You Sow in San Francisco. Under Prop. 65, the state attorney general and county district attorneys have the opportunity to take over the suits, which, in this case, they did.
Mattel, the world's largest toymaker, has been "in continuous communication" with the attorney general's office since the recalls began in June and has "cooperated fully in the matter," according to a statement released by spokeswoman Lisa Marie Bongiovanni.
"The use of paint with impermissible levels of lead by certain subcontractors was a clear violation of the company's quality and safety standards," her statement read.
The company has taken significant actions, including requiring the testing of paint, random inspections of vendors and subcontractors, and the sampling of every production run of painted toys, she said.
Since the recalls, the Consumer Product Safety Commission - a federal agency charged with keeping toys and other products safe - has come under sharp criticism by congressional committees and consumer groups for failing to protect children from lead and other chemicals in toys, jewelry, lunchboxes and other products.
Some environmental groups say the agency is heavily influenced by the companies that it regulates. Representatives of the agency have said they are hampered by a small budget and the way it was set up to operate under federal law.
Among others named in the state's lawsuit are Fisher-Price Inc.; Michaels Stores Inc.; Sears, Roebuck and Co.; Costco Wholesale Corp.; Eveready Battery Co.; Kmart Corp.; and Marvel Entertainment.
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Representatives of some of the companies say they haven't yet seen the lawsuit. However, they say they've already acted to make sure lead is kept out of their products.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is requiring recent test documentation for all toys on shelves now and for the holidays. The company has ordered tests from independent labs, and is discussing new standards for testing and safety with other retailers and industry, said John Simley, a company spokesman in Bentonville, Ark.
Wal-Mart will also assist its suppliers and foreign government officials to develop new safety steps. That includes China, where most of the recalled toys were made. The company also plans to purchase more products from Europe and North America, Simley said.
Amy von Walter, a spokeswoman for Target Corp., said she couldn't comment on pending litigation. In general, Target requires all of its vendors "to meet and comply with all applicable laws regarding product safety," she said.
Lead and other toxic substances in children's toys are a serious health threat, and labeling of lead should be required, said Emily Rusch, consumer advocate for CalPIRG, a statewide public interest group. But the real solution is banning the use of lead, she said.
"Now Congress needs to take the next step and ban lead in children's toys all together," Rusch said.
Her group supports parts of a bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, known as the CPSC Reform Act. It is designed to prevent unsafe toys from reaching store shelves. The bill has passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee, and is awaiting further action.
CalPIRG also supports a bill called the Consumer Product Safety Modernization Act, a similar bill by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., which will be heard in the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week.
CalPIRG will release its annual toy safety report, Trouble in Toyland, today. It will be posted at calpirg.org.
Read the lawsuit:
Read the list of recalled toys:
E-mail Jane Kay at email@example.com.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle