A frightening discovery that a handful of popular Halloween toys are filled with more trick than treat is spooking parents and fueling questions about whether the government agency responsible for ensuring product safety is doing its job.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued warnings on items such as witch and skull pails, cape costumes and pumpkin Mr. Potato Heads, saying they are unsafe for kids.
But many on Capitol Hill contend that isn't enough, and are calling for adequate measures to ensure that toys coming from developing nations aren't harmful.
"We've tested 22 Halloween products, and three were found to have contained high levels of lead," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a news conference call Tuesday meant to explain what legislators are doing to address the problem. "In so many ways, we shouldn't be surprised. The government has done little to curb this toxic tide."
About 142,000 purple witch buckets, manufactured by Family Dollar Stores in Charlotte, N.C., were recalled because of toxic lead levels found in the paint coating them. Also pulled were 55,000 candy-filled skull pails, made by R.L. Albert & Son of Greenwich, Conn.
Fears involving flammability were the reason 120,000 "Creepy Cape" costumes produced by the U.S.-based TONY Development and Manufacturing have been flagged. And the 97,000 recalled Mr. Potato Head "Make a Monster Pumpkin" sets were deemed a danger because they contained parts tots could choke on.
Also recalled earlier this month were about 63,000 green Frankenstein cups sold at Dollar General stores across the country.
Fake choppers called "Ugly Teeth" tested positive for lead too, with conflicting reports about whether the levels surpassed the limits set by the Food and Drug Administration.
The Halloween products are the latest in a toy recall blitz that's reached staggering heights since the summer — with more than 21 million toys and other products manufactured in China taken off store shelves because of hazardous levels of lead and other dangers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other members of Congress have called for the resignation of the acting chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Nancy Nord, and are proposing legislation that will, among other things, make it illegal to knowingly sell products that could be subject to a recall.
"This issue exposes such an outrageous abuse of the public trust," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., another lawmaker who wants Nord to step down. "Trade should never trump public health or consumer safety," she said on the conference call.
Those demanding an overhaul of the Consumer Product Safety Commission say that while trade has opened up with China and other countries in the last decade, regulations on imports in this country have become more lax and the commission's funding has been cut, making it difficult to monitor what's being sold on store shelves here.
In addition, many of the nations doing more trade with the United States, like China, don't have the same — or in some cases, any — safety practices and standards for manufacturing products.
It remains to be seen whether all the recalls and fears about toxic toys will have serious, far-reaching effects on children's health and public safety — or whether the panic has been exaggerated by politicians and the media.
"One reason why you've got to be worried is we simply don't know the extent of the problem," Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, told the news conference. "Protection agencies aren't testing these things."
The phenomenon has become so widespread that parents and grandparents have taken to buying lead-testing kits at their local hardware stores and conducting their own analyses of children's products at home.
This Halloween, parents would be wise to be careful, but refrain from going overboard and spooking themselves and their kids too much. Conducting a quick check of Halloween toy recall lists and taking some basic safety precautions should do the trick — so that the holiday can still be full of treats.