Young children in the Greater Toronto Area are being sold toys, knick-knacks and glittering jewellery laced with dangerously high levels of lead.
A Star investigation found the sweet-tasting metal in a shocking range of items – from a dollar-store baby pacifier to a Hannah Montana bracelet bought at Wal-Mart.
The federal government, which is responsible for policing store shelves, has failed to protect children from lead in toys. For a decade, officials in Ottawa have commissioned studies and issued warnings about a material that U.S. authorities have deemed one of the most serious environmental hazards to children.
But dangerous toys are still being sold in Canada.
Using two types of high-tech tests, the Star set out to learn what regulators are letting through holes in the net.
We found lead in items at retailers big and small throughout the GTA, at a stall in St. Lawrence Market, a Dollarama in Scarborough and online.
Some of those tainted products, such as costume jewellery, contained levels of lead that are illegal under Canadian law. Other items contained lead but fall into categories that aren't regulated.
At the west-end toy store Animal Crackers, the Star found a jewellery kit billed as "Lead Free." It was not. One of the pendants, in the shape of a ship anchor, tested nearly double the legal limit for lead. The necklace clasp tested at 150 times the limit.When confronted by the Star, store owner Ayaz Khalani, 59, walked to a rack where five of the same jewellery kits were hanging on display, took them down and threw them into a trash bin.
"These are all garbage," he said. "This should not have happened. It should not be sold."
But Khalani said he is an independent toy store owner who cannot afford to test everything he sells. He says that job belongs to the manufacturers, importers and government."It's not my problem," Khalani said. "I blame our government. Something is coming to this country and it is coming with the permission of the government. They should be taken to task."
At Khalani's supplier, Canasia Toys and Gifts of Vaughan, executive Wilson Fung said he was "not very happy" with the Chinese manufacturer from whom he had purchased the kits because he had paid a premium for lead-free products. He said he threw out the remaining 100 kits in his inventory.
Calgary teenager Lyndsey Svendsen, who was sickened by a heavily leaded piece of jewellery 10 years ago, does not understand why nothing has been done since then.
"Why would something that hurt me in the past come back to hurt others?"
Health Minister Tony Clement called the Star's findings "deeply disturbing," said enforcement of leaded products is not good enough and pledged that if re-elected he would introduce a law that would better protect consumers. He said the current law is weak and that fines and criminal prosecutions against offending companies are rare.
The Star shopped at 18 retailers in the GTA and found lead in about one in every four products purchased, including a cuddly stuffed animal dressed as an iconic Mountie, charms that snap into the holes of Crocs shoes, and several bite-size baubles. Most of the products were made in China.
Lead levels may be described in two ways: in parts per million (ppm), or as a percentage of lead in the object. For example, solid lead is one million ppm, or 100 per cent lead.
Pink rhinestones decorating the Hannah Montana bracelet the Star purchased tested at 27 per cent lead. That's 445 times the legal limit on lead in jewellery marketed to children. The Star also found a clasp in a jewellery kit that tested at 1,000 times the limit.
Repeatedly sucking on, or swallowing, these items could bring on a range of damaging symptoms, from a drop in IQ, to a prolonged period of vomiting, diarrhea and cramping, to possible death, says Dr. Lennox Huang, deputy chief of pediatrics at McMaster Children's Hospital.
In 2006, a 4-year-old Minnesota boy died after swallowing a heavily leaded piece of jewellery. Another 4-year-old, Colton Burkhart of Oregon, nearly died after ingesting a vending-machine trinket that tested at 39 per cent lead.
The Star called Colton's mother, Kara, at her home near Bend, Ore., and told her about the toxic jewellery found in Toronto, including the clasp with 66-per-cent lead.
"Oh my God," she said. "If somebody swallows that ... a child, a 4-year-old, could be dead before a doctor could figure out what's going on."
The clasp prompted a recall in the United States nearly three months ago; it shouldn't have been for sale in Canada.
Yet, with a couple of keystrokes, the Star found and bought the jewellery kit on chapters.indigo.ca, the online store of Indigo Books and Music. The clasps used to connect the necklace chain tested for lead at 656,000 parts per million. The federal limit on jewellery is 600 parts per million.
"I find it appalling you actually found a piece of jewellery that had been recalled," said Lyndsey Svendsen's mother, Lesley, who has been advocating for consumer protection since her daughter was sickened by lead.
"(Retailers) are selling poison. There's no monitoring being done. It makes me furious. I feel helpless. I would like to see no amount of lead (permitted) in any toy or jewellery, because no lead is safe."
Several store owners pledged to pull the toxic items off their shelves after hearing from the Star, and deflected blame to importers, manufacturers and the federal government for not doing nearly enough to protect children.
Wal-Mart and the U.S.-based distributor, F.A.F. Inc., said they have since pulled the remaining 3,000 Hannah Montana bracelets from store shelves across Canada while they investigate the Star's findings. Both said the product was screened and found to be safe. But Wal-Mart later said the lead screening was incomplete. Neither company would share the test results with the Star.
Disney, the company name on the Hannah Montana bracelet package, did not return messages.
A bill was recently introduced in the House of Commons that would have made it tougher for companies to make, distribute or sell leaded products to children. It was overdue – the federal Hazardous Products Act had not been overhauled in 40 years.
But politicians in Ottawa dithered. They could have made it a priority and passed the bill, known as C-52. Instead, the recent call for a federal election stalled the proposed law.
"It's dead," Liberal MP Paul Szabo (Mississauga South) said of the bill. "Nothing's changed. The system doesn't work. Imports from China are a disaster."
Lead appeals to manufacturers because it is a soft, malleable and inexpensive material. But it's especially harmful to children, whose developing brains and motor skills are more vulnerable to the effects of toxic metals than those of adults.
In the U.S., where awareness is higher and surveillance more widespread, more than 300,000 children are known to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. A major source is leaded paint in old houses. But in some areas of the U.S., up to 35 per cent of poisoned children were exposed to lead in items brought into the home, such as toys.
Here in Canada, officials don't even know the extent of the problem. There hasn't been a comprehensive study of lead levels in Canadians for 30 years – until now. Preliminary results of an ongoing Statistics Canada survey are due out in several weeks.
Meanwhile, retailers have been allowed to police themselves.
Which explains how the Star's investigation turned up, after a brief Internet search, the recalled jewellery making kit.
Canadian officials followed the U.S. recall, as they often do, with a warning to the public. Unlike their American counterparts, Canadian officials cannot issue mandatory recalls, only what Health Canada misleadingly calls "recall notices."
There is a big difference.
A recall notice does not allow the government to actually demand a recall of dangerous items. That means the billion-dollar toy and jewellery industries can operate with little fear of fines or criminal prosecution if they flout the notice.
Health Canada inspectors can seize hazardous products found on store shelves. But there are only 46 inspectors monitoring stores nationwide. Of that number, 13 patrol all of Ontario – 11 for Toronto and two to protect the millions who live outside the city. Clement told the Star more inspectors are being hired.
Indigo spokesperson Trevor Dayton said that after the Star contacted his company, all 71 jewellery kits on hand were pulled from the stockroom.
At the Florida-based distributor, Action products International, president Ron Kaplan said his company's internal testing detected the problem and notified authorities in the U.S. and Canada. But Kaplan said he could not find any indication that his firm contacted Indigo to warn of the danger.
The threat of lead and other chemicals in toys became a major concern for many parents last year after several high-profile recalls that originated in the U.S. – including a massive recall of Mattel products made in China and sold throughout North America.
The spate of recalls helped Kara Burkhart of Oregon and others persuade their federal government to pass a tougher law that will require more rigorous testing of products; lower permissible lead levels in items sold to children; raise fines on retailers who violate recalls; and increase the number of government inspectors checking imports like the one that nearly killed Colton.
"Parents cannot rely on companies," Burkhart said. "They're out to make a dollar and they're going to do it however they can do it. We cannot take their word for it. We need our government to step up and protect our children."
The threat to consumers does not appear to have sufficiently frightened lawmakers in Ottawa.
For years, regulators have been publishing strategies and proposing changes in law to better protect children.
Since 2002, Health Canada has proposed that it be made illegal to sell a pacifier with more than 90 parts per million lead. But there is still no law banning lead in pacifiers.
Meanwhile, the Star found a pacifier at Everything For a Dollar on Warden Ave. that tested at more than 10 times the proposed limit.
Wahid Choksi, co-owner of the Everything For a Dollar chain, said he stopped selling the pacifier at his stores months ago, but that "maybe ... one or two stores did not follow instructions very carefully and they still have it out in their retail area. That's very bad. I'm going to get in touch with the manager right away and order her to remove it."
Choksi, who travels to Asia four times a year, says he doesn't see Canadian officials spot-checking his imports. "They're never there," he said of inspectors. "At the time when the containers are being released from customs, I think even at that point they should have some sort of scrutiny."
Choksi believes the federal government should hurry up and make a law limiting lead in pacifiers.
Dr. Huang was troubled to hear of the hazardous pacifier. "To a parent or even a healthcare professional, an infant may appear completely healthy but could in fact have a lead level high enough to subtly affect their IQ or schooling down the road," he said.
Health Minister Clement told the Star he would consider adding such a measure to any law he proposes, should he be re-elected Oct. 14.
Reached in Bangkok, Thailand, where the pacifier is made by Royal King Infant Products, a company manager said that after the Star's inquiry, a similar item was immediately tested and found to have no lead. The manager said the company follows strict safety guidelines.