Monday, April 19, 2010

CPSIA - The Myth of the "Common Toy Box"

If you wonder why Waxman and his staff won't discuss a change to the age limits in the CPSIA, it's their fear of the "common toy box". They claim that unless a wide net is spread over children's products, small children could be "affected" by the toys of older children in the same home.

It is absolutely outrageous that an urban myth could send thousands of businesses down the river and cost literally billions in compliance and regulatory expenses. While common toy boxes are not themselves a myth, their ability to cause bodily injury is certainly fantastic.

I know it's downright prissy to discuss numbers in this era of junk science but, ahem, where's the evidence that so-called "common toy boxes" cause injuries? I am not aware of a SINGLE incident where this occurred. If you restrict your inquiry to lead injuries, the phobia du jour, I am even more certain that it has NEVER HAPPENED.

And what if it did happen? I submit that we cannot and SHOULD NOT conclude that anything is "unsafe" based on a single incident. Have you never heard of "accidents"? The concept of safety administration is inherently economic in nature, so the risk and cost of controlling that risk must be considered before making any choices. The risk of injury from "common toy boxes" needs to be evaluated for the probability of occurrence, and for whether the cost to remediate is greater than the benefit to be gained.

Is that really so outlandish? Am I some sort of corporate "tool" for daring to suggest this? If so, I challenge you to counter my argument that getting out of bed in the morning involves weighing risks. If you were to equally weight all known risks, without considering the probability of incurring the costs of those risks, you would never leave your bed - too risky. In fact, you would probably sleep below your bed in the basement, which provides better protection against meteorites. We intuit this every day without difficulty and bear these low risks because we believe we can control them.

Absurd example? Is the over-weighting of a single injury or death from lead any different?

Our company has been in business for almost 26 years. I have previously acknowledged that we have had one recall, for a grand total of 130 pieces (out of perhaps 1 billion pieces sold). These items were sold to 14 customers, and we called each one and got back more than 100% of what we shipped out. The world was made safe again for mankind. That is it for us. I submit that our safety record is not an accident. If that's true (and it is), what is America gaining by the excessive costs we will bear under this law, or worse, the dramatic liability risks we now face? All because Waxman's staff can't get past the "common toy box".

The sham of the justification of the "common toy box" is further exposed by presence in a child's life of so many other sources of the very same risk that this law seeks to eradicate.
  • Will it rid the world of lead? Certainly not, it's in our food, potable water and air. The media is awash in articles about lead in drinking fountains in schools. Lead pipes have been conveying our water for years. And good luck getting rid of brass in the home. And "deadly" rhinestones are in every girl's closet already.
  • Will it prevent lead-in-substrate from entering their world? No, products outside children's products remain unregulated, including products intended for the home but not specifically intended for kids (e.g., pens and housewares). Even dog toys will continue to be unregulated. Do you think children handle dog toys? Come on!
  • Will the law even eliminate lead-in-paint from a child's life? No - it's smeared all over your cars. Will your kid touch your car more often than he/she sucks on his bike's tire valve? One word - duh.
The justification of the "common toy box" is a negotiating ploy. It's an artifice to permit the utter change of our safety system from risk-based to a European-style set if precautionary and prescriptive rules. The idea sells and no one gives it much thought, which is all that matters. As last week's Senate Appropriations Committee hearing demonstrated, this new era permits members of Congress to justify their existence with long rants on their basic and poorly-researched fears (such as antimony on the nose of a Zhu Zhu Pet). Anything goes when you are afraid of a toy box.

Don't buy into the logic of the precautionary principle people. If you do, you will end in the "common rubbish bin" with the rest of the victim businesses.


Sebastian said...

The logic of using the common toy box idea to regulate toys for 12 year olds and toys for 12 month olds the same way falls apart if you ask one question. "What about choking?"
There are size restrictions on a whole gamut of toys and products for the toddler set. But for older kids, the restriction goes away. That's why Legos, with their tiny pieces, aren't recommended for 0-3, but Duplo, which are far bigger, are fine.
So if I can be expected to provide adequate supervision in my home to keep my younger kids from choking on my older kids toys, why would it not also follow that I can keep them from chewing on the math manipulatives or microscope?

Anonymous said...

When the benefits are valued at infinity (possibly saving a child's life, or preventing the possible loss of an IQ point), then it follows that the cost that society should be willing to bear is also without bound. This is the simple calculus that consumer advocates resort to, and provides the economic justification for what they advocate. This is also why (to get away from children for the moment) that the FDA is advocating irradiating all oysters in order to save on the average of 4 (almost certainly adult) lives per year. Since Americans are for the most part mathematically deprived, and seldom influenced by logic either, it is easy for the consumer advocates to push their agenda on on our society. (The fact that they also collect sometime hefty salaries based on what they promote also might influence their oratory, but then, marketing is after all the major industry in this country.) It is also why virtually every member of Congress voted for the CPSIA because they all believe, and more importantly want to appear to believe, that there is simply no burden not worth bearing that might - just might - prevent an accident to a child. So Rick, sadly any argument based on probabilities of undesirable events, is well beyond the comprehension level of the American public at large, and certainly beyond the interests of congressmen, congresswomen and bureaucrats, who would otherwise have found their livelihoods as pastry chefs (credit to MASH screen writers) had there not been more openings in law school.