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Trading Away the Health of Our Children

Anna Blackshaw

These days my two-year-old son's favorite word is why. Usually I have very reasonable explanations. But when he asked me recently why I was taking away his beloved Thomas the Tank trains, I had no simple answer. After some thought, I told him there was something in the trains that could hurt him, and that it was no longer safe for him to play with them. As he gazed mournfully at his confiscated trains, he asked, "But why?"Why, indeed? In the last few months alone we have recalled wooden trains, Elmo, Dora the Explorer and now Batman. Mattel, the largest toy manufacturer in the world, recently announced another recall -- over 18 million toys worldwide, 9 million in the United States alone -- the second time in just two weeks their toys subjected to a massive recall.

Some of the recalled toys contain small magnets that can come loose and puncture internal organs of children if swallowed, causing serious injury or death. Others were painted with lead which can cause brain damage or behavioral development problems with repeated physical exposure or if swallowed.

That the recalled items are coming from China makes it tempting to simply blame the Chinese and boycott the "Made in China" label. However, U.S. corporations did not outsource millions of domestic jobs overseas because they thought they would get better manufacturing quality - the jobs were outsourced so that products could be made more quickly, more cheaply and with fewer of the environmental and labor regulations important to U.S. consumers. In the race for ever-cheaper markets and the lack of meaningful regulatory standards, subcontractors in China are merely doing what the global economy demands of them - manufacture products on the fly for pennies.

So whom do we blame?

While elected officials and CEO's wring their hands in dismay and call for increased oversight, the reality is that powerful business interests and the politicians who do their bidding have been peddling trade agreements for years that actually limit government's ability to engage in any meaningful import inspections. In fact, trade rules do not allow for higher rates of inspection for products that come from outside of the U.S. than they do for domestic products. Why? Because under the twisted logic of free trade, to do so would be to discriminate against the exporting country, thereby creating a "trade barrier".

In the China toy scenario, for example, even if the U.S. government ultimately decided to enforce stricter inspection measures because of the high incidence of these toys entering the country, China could slap the U.S. with a trade suit claiming that those measures were a barrier to trade and a violation of trade rules. If the suit were upheld, it would mean that the U.S. would be forced to roll back the regulations or risk a heavy fine.

And what about onsite quality standards? On whose watch was lead-based paint used by the vendor in China? Mattel is a multi billion-dollar company, and they don't have enough resources to ensure that lead is not used in the toys they make? No system of double and triple checking? As a mother, I can't even walk out the door without going over my list twice. Keys? Check. Diapers? Check. Snacks? Check. The truth is, these corporations don't want to know. In spite of voluntary codes of conduct and global manufacturing principles that look great on paper, what they really want is to not get caught. Corporations are the driving force behind a globalized system that values economic indicators - financial wealth, rising stocks and high levels of production - over public health, human rights, and the environment.

Recalled toys are just the tip of the iceberg -while the debate about goods coming in from other countries rages on, we have seen recalls on products as varied as toothpaste, pet food, drinking glasses and candles.

On the news lately, there has been story after story about parents frantically clawing through toy boxes in search of recalled toys. Information runs on the screen about what parents can do: where to get your child tested for lead; where to check on the toys for manufacturing numbers; how to dispose of or return the toys. But the threat is much larger than just these toys. Unregulated corporate power and free-trade deals that paralyze corrective action are putting public interests at risk. As parents we need to have a voice in what drives the global economic system. There are pending trade deals with several countries, including Panama, South Korea, Columbia and Peru being negotiated in Congress right now seeking further expansion of these short-sighted free-trade rules. It is time to tell Congress that enough is enough. The safety of our children is simply non-negotiable.

Anna Blackshaw is the mother of a two-year old son and a freelance writer and photographer who lives outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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