Have U.S. – EU quality standards been used as a form of protectionism against China?

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Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

The news last week that Mattel have recalled one million car toys due to lead paint concerns – apparently the 17th major recall in the past 20 years from China for manufactured toys – has raised of course yet more concerns about the safety of China made product.

Now, while for sure I do not endorse the lowering of reasonable standards of health and safety, I do have to wonder at exactly what level of standards the United States and the EU have been applying to products sourced or manufactured in China and other developing countries.

If Mattel’s toy cars have had their quality control standards lowered by the application of a non-conformative lead paint in China, then the implication is that use of such materials is widespread in the PRC. Yet China has many, many children, all wanting toys. But I don’t get to hear about Chinese children suffering from lead poisoning.

That of course could well be the secrecy that the PRC uses to hide behind problems affecting the nations health. However it could equally be that the developed world has over-legislated when it comes to certain products, and has fixed standards that are deliberately too high. That could be either the result of the ‘nanny’ state, interfering with the norms of the masses by accepting the arguments of a few, (The U.S. population vs government chemists in this case) or could it be a rather more politically influenced reasoning – using deliberately high quality standards, beyond those required, in order to protect home grown markets?

I for one would be interested to learn how many lead paint poisoning cases amongst children there were per annum in the U.S. prior to legislation being drawn up to identify ‘safe’ levels and quantify standards. Because a certain amount of what I see in terms of quality standards that China and the developing world are being asked to reach strike me as being potentially unnecessary.

Chinese scientists working on behalf of some of the larger manufacturers may well want to start to examine some of the toxicological justification for any excessively high standards imposed on products manufactured in the country. And if that is the case, then the political implications could be rather more far reaching than an instance of Mattel just having to recall toy cars.

3 thoughts on “Have U.S. – EU quality standards been used as a form of protectionism against China?

    Tony White says:

    Now that is a very interesting perspective to put on the issue. The US in general does tend to over-protect its citizens although whether that is trade protectionism is another matter, and I rather doubt that. The over emphasisation of health & safety standards would make sense in the US given it’s record of litigation against defective products and the generally very high awards consumers can obtain in damages from US courts. Whether or not the US will do anything about it is somewhat unlikely, but the shrewd observation by Chris of Chinese toxicology scientists challenging American standards on matters such as lead paint coatings of toy cars is a potentially fascinating development if it occurs. US Consumers are going to have to change habits or expectations I feel in the longer term when it comes to product from China or India. These low prices do have a downside, and the consumer usually gets his way. It’s an moot point if pressure will ever be brought on the US to lower any of it’s health & safety standards as being unreasonably high.

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    In researching this issue further, the whole question of lead poisoning in children via toys starts to get a little confusing, and not a little murky. From what I can gather, there seems to be conflicting data on what can be termed an “acceptable level” of lead in paint, and differences in the systems used to measure it.

    Interestingly, none of the scholarly reports I managed to read online mentioned lead paint in toys being a source of poisoning amongst children – a potential issue to back up the allegations of anti-Chinese protectionism when 70% of the worlds toy market is sourced from China. It proved difficult to obtain specific and clear details on what an ‘acceptable’ level of lead in paint actually is – but one historic fact kept raising itself time and time again – lead poisoning cases in the US stem largely from paint used in houses pre-1978, after which the the practice was subsequently barred, with Federal Law dictating that paint to be used in premises should not exceed 5 parts per million. (See http://www.lockport-ny.com/Allegheny/lead.htm). Other concerns deal with the lead in petrol, (benzene) long known to have effects on children exposed to polluted air or living near highways. The EHP website goes on to study the sources of lead paint poisoning in children, in surveys carried out in 2006. It doesn’t mention toys at all – however, the lead paint in old pre-1978 built American houses, and the soil contanimation is strongly mentioned as a major factor:
    http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1332675

    However, that also appears to conflict with a Report to Congress made in 1974 that stated that levels of 0.5% were safe, endorsed by the US Consumer Product Safety Council, and then again with an apparent FDA regulation that specifies 0.5 parts per million quoted in the Green Guide http://www.thegreenguide.com/doc/118/chocolate. Other levels too are bandied about by the Federal Center For Disease Control, which mention lead levels of lead in paint are unacceptable ‘if higher than 25 micrograms per deciliter of blood’. Confused as to applicable standards? I was.

    Finally I seemed able to come up with a WHO study, however it again uses a different mechanism to measure acceptable levels of lead. Generally the report is excellent however and does cite various US lawsuits, as well as medical studies on sources of lead poisoning in Children. Tellingly – not once are toys mentioned: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1247191.

    The most recent case for damages awarded I could find was cited as being USD2.2 million, in 2002 to a child whose lead levels proved so toxic she suffered brain damage – however the source was lead paint used to coat the house, not toys: http://www.peterdanziger.com/tr121302.html

    So – as far as I can establish, the threat to children from lead paint being used in toys appears to be so low it is not mentioned in any of the studies I have read, with the issue being further clouded by a raft of apparently differing opinions and guidelines on what acceptable standards actually are.

    I am not for a minute denying that lead should be used in paint – however I do wonder if the standards set by the US in certain consumer products are actually grounded in what could be termed ‘sustainable deliverables’ by manufacturers elsewhere, and whether or not this process is either a reflection of a litigious Amercian society, in which consumer is king, or a more subtle mechanism to protect domestic industries ?

    From what I can establish – paint containing lead on childrens toys does not constitute a health hazard. But lead in petrol, and in paint used in house decoration most certainly does. Over legislation ?

    First question to ask is, “Who stands to gain” from the recall?

    Certainly NOT Mattel, since they have gone through the process to get the products to to market, and pulling them out is minimally a major loss of market time, and loss of potential sales, which surely had been in the income/profit projections of Mattel’s bean counter.

    Also, corporations aren’t well known for their social or consumer consciousness where they would initiate a recall. Nevertheless, Mattel would have to be alert, because the flap that would ensue would cost Mattel far more.

    Lead has been banned for many years (at least 40, I think), when it was discovered to affect children’s mental functions, and lead paint in homes was one of the principal sources, since kids like to eat wall peelings, and other stuff. Lead known to be a cumulative poison, as most metals tend to be; in other words, a ‘safe level’ doesn’t prevent the potential accumulation in a body, because if there were many products with a safe level, their accumulation would then be toxic. Sometimes it takes years of accumulation before toxic effects are visible.

    Since Bush’s budget cuts in many public protection agencies inside government, their staffs have been decimated, so it’s unlikely that found the problem through ‘random inspections.’ My guess is that it was found by one of the many consumer protection NGO’s who constantly are on guard, testing and checking, who found the problem and then reported it to government who would then have to act.

    The gruesome stories about the effects of lead is probably deeply imprinted in the American mind, so the reaction is normal, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with protectionism.

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