Monday, September 17, 2007

Toying with Safety

Anybody who knows anything about the toxicity of lead paint has more sense than to put it on a kid's toy. But somehow, millions of toys painted in China carried detectable amounts of lead across the oceans and possibly into the mouths of children all over the U. S., and in other parts of the world too. Even small amounts of lead can affect a child's neurological development, and so the hue and cry over this problem is justified, by and large. I'd like to look at two questions regarding this issue: (1) how did it happen, and (2) how serious is it, really?

A complete story of the whole sequence of events is probably not available now and may not be until months or years of investigation are completed. But based on available evidence—namely, tests that show lead in paint and a knowledge of where the toys came from—I can imagine the following scenario. Government regulation in the Peoples' Republic of China is a sometime thing. About the only activity you can count on being universally suppressed everywhere in the country is political protest. But when it comes to industrial development, economic shortcuts, and evasion of taxes and other government regulations, there seems to be a kind of patchiness in effect that depends on where you are and who you know. Just to give you an idea of how strange things are over there compared to the U. S. business environment, one of the largest owners of factories and other industrial facilities is the army. A Chinese friend of mine who now lives in Hong Kong described the situation to me a few years ago as "the wild wild West."

Given such a free-wheeling environment, it isn't surprising that an ambitious toy-factory owner looking to save a few yuan on his supply costs would buy paint from a source who would either lie about its chemical makeup, or simply not know. If it looked good and stayed on the toys, the paint was fine as far as he was concerned.

Although Mattel Inc. has come across looking like the bad guy in many news reports, to their credit they appear to have taken most of the right actions, once they became aware of the problem. That does leave the question of how thorough their product safety testing was, if millions of toys slipped through it before the first lead was found. Clearly they were not testing as extensively as they are now, but now CEO Bob Eckert realizes his company is fighting for survival. In a video on the company website, he apologizes abjectly and shows laboratory scenes of people in white coats taking samples from toy trucks to test for lead content. Clearly, for a while someone was using lead on toys made in China and imported by Mattel, and nobody who could do anything about it knew. This is not an engineering problem as much as it was a management and information problem, but engineering is also about management and information. All the technical smarts in the world won't produce safe products if an organization can't use those smarts to protect consumers, and itself, from harm. Mattel's current vigilance, along with the possibility of tightened Federal regulations, will probably clear up this problem eventually, or at least make it much less likely to recur.

That being said, how serious was it? While no child should be exposed to lead in his or her environment, the paint problem itself has not caused any known fatalities. This was not the case in a parallel episode that took place in Europe in the 1800s. Around 1820, the technology of printing and paper manufacture advanced enough to make wallpaper a popular new interior decorating option. One of the most-used dyes in the new industry was something called Paris green, based on the chemical copper arsenate. Bedbugs were a big problem back then, and people who bought green wallpaper noticed a side benefit, which was that in bedrooms where they'd put up the wallpaper, you never had problems with bedbugs. Now and then, especially in damp weather, the wallpaper gave off a slight garlicky odor, but standards of sanitation back then weren't what they are now, and that might have been a selling point too compared to other things you could smell in a house around that time.

Then there began to surface some rumors that people who lived in the bedrooms with green wallpaper often got a mysterious illness and eventually died. Statistical epidemiology was in its infancy back then, but something looked fishy enough to the Prussian government that by 1838, they prohibited the use of poisonous substances in wallpaper. But most other countries shrugged off the issue and the mystery continued until 1897. In that year a chemist named Gosio showed that the starch in wallpaper pasted encouraged the growth of a mold in damp weather that turned the copper arsenate in green wallpaper into a gas which we now know as trimethylarsenate. It smells like garlic and will kill you if you breathe enough of it. That was enough to put an end to the use of Paris green in wallpaper for good, although it continued to be sold as an insecticide for years until newer organic compounds replaced it.

The moral from that little story is that ignorance of the technical principles behind a safety problem can slow down its solution for decades. We've known about the hazards of lead paint for many years, so ignorance was no excuse in this case. All the same, if you compare Mattel's problems with the green-wallpaper story, I'd say it's like comparing a fender-bender to a five-car freeway pileup that resulted in a fire and eight fatalities. No, you shouldn't even have fender-benders, but there are worse things that can happen than fender-benders.

Sources: The Mattel recall has been reported extensively at sites such as, where an AP story appeared on Aug. 14 at Mattel CEO Bob Eckert's apology can be viewed at I am indebted to a geochemistry instructor named Moore (possibly Johnnie Moore) at the University of Montana, whose course notes at contain the green-wallpaper story.

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