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Why Should A Stuffed Toy Hamster Need An 11-page Bill Of Health?

Elizabeth GrossmanElizabeth Grossman is the author most recently of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry. She writes from Portland, Oregon.

The first story I heard on the news Monday evening was about the stir caused by safety testing one of this season’s “it” toys – a certain kind of stuffed hamster. A consumer advocacy group had found the toy contained levels of an element called antimony that exceed government standards but then conceded that its testing method did not match that of government testers. To assure the public of the toy’s safety, the manufacturer has now released its testing report.

Curious, I went to the manufacturer’s website, to the non-profit’s, and to that of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. What I discovered was ultimately not reassuring.

Why should a stuffed toy hamster need an 11-page bill of health? What’s antimony doing in a stuffed animal anyway? Why have Tinker Bell’s wand, products of Santa’s Toys, a set of action figures, tiny dinosaurs, monkeys, and doll clothes, all been declared unsafe for children? [pullquote]/Why should choosing a safe toy require a digitally accessible database and the patience of a tenacious detective?/[/pullquote]

Yes, there is now far more testing of children’s products than ever before and therefore fewer on the market with unsafe levels of lead – a trend documented in reports released this month – but lead is just one of many hazardous chemicals still in use. While there are many good databases, websites, and publications rating product safety, consumers are still mostly in the dark.

It’s nice to think that all holiday gifts to children will consist of certifiably non-toxic crayons and drawing paper or the equivalent, but in 2009 – another season of tight budgets that tend to prompt last minute and deep discount shopping – that’s simply not realistic. Chances are, someone will be dashing through the 99-cent-type store or the mall just before the holiday to buy toys or other children’s gifts. And right now, we’re living with a system that’s designed to keep information about products’ chemical contents mostly under wraps.

Recent legislation designed to keep lead and other harmful chemicals out of children’s products is an important step forward, but to truly protect children from hazardous chemicals, I think we need to go farther. We need to create a system that will get us beyond dueling safety reports, mystery ingredients, and the possibility of replacing one hazardous material with another.

Currently the burden of proof in chemical safety rests on users of chemicals and chemical-containing products – e.g. toy manufacturers, retailers, and consumers. As Sen. Frank Lautenberg and EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said at the recent Senate hearing on the Toxics Substance Control Act, this responsibility needs to shift to chemical manufacturers and to do so with increased transparency that respects the public’s right to know. And that public has to include the hurried mother with children in tow.

Antimony, by the way, is often used as a flame-retardant agent in textiles. And while awaiting expert help in interpreting the stuffed hamster testing report I’m happy to share a holiday cookie recipe.

Holiday Cookies

Melt 1 1/2 cup butter

Mix 1 cup sugar into melted butter

Add 1/4 cup molasses and stir mixture well.

Add one lightly beaten egg and mix well.

In separate bowl combine 1 3/4 cup flour, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt

To flour mixture add: 1/2 – 1 teaspoon ground allspice, 1/2 – 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (Use 1 teaspoon of allspice and ginger if you want spicier cookies!)

Mix flour-spice mixture into melted butter-sugar mixture. Combine thoroughly. Batter will be wet.

Put a sheet of foil on a cookie sheet. Drop large teaspoons of batter onto foil. Leave space between as batter spreads while baking. 12 cookies fit well on an average baking sheet.

Bake at 350ºF for about 8-10 minutes, until cookies have spread and begun to darken.

Remove from oven while cookies still soft. Let cool a few minutes before removing with spatula to finish cooling.

Makes 3-4 dozen cookies, depending on size of cookies.

These are soft chewy cookies and keep well in a closed tin or jar for 7-10 days. (I’ve been making mine with mostly organic ingredients; only organic molasses is hard to find.)