Lead Content in Products for Children Adults

Selling products for kids is a tricky business. We adults are, to a certain extent, willing to adopt a “buyer beware” attitude. But kids deserve protection — the duty to protect children is a universal ethical norm. Add to that the fact that they are simply more physically vulnerable, and it’s not hard to see why we expect (and impose) higher standards of behaviour on the part of companies that make products aimed at kids.

That implies all kinds of ways in which manufacturers need to exercise caution: in product design, in the sourcing of parts and ingredients, in the manufacturing process, and in marketing. One way to avoid the extra hassle: make a product for kids, ignore the relevant safety standards, but make sure that you claim, when asked, that it’s really not for kids at all.

Here’s the story, by Justin Pritchard for The Associated Press: Feds dismiss recall on lead glasses

A federal agency reversed itself Friday and said lead-laced Wizard of Oz and superhero drinking glasses are, in fact, for adults — not children’s products subject to a previously announced recall.

The stunning about-face came after the Consumer Product Safety Commission said last month the glasses were children’s products and thus subject to strict federal lead limits.

Lab testing by the Associated Press found lead in the colored decorations up to 1,000 times the federal maximum for children’s products. The CPSC has no limits on lead content on the outside of adult drinking glasses….

The story here is in part about the odd decision by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But I want to focus on the decision the company here made.

Now, I might have been a bit harsh when I implied above that the company making these glasses is being disingenuous when they say the glasses really aren’t for kids. Who knows what their intentions were? Our default assumption about people’s intentions should be a fair and charitable one, in the absence of evidence to the contrary. But that of course highlights the difficulty with a regulation based on divining a company’s intentions:

Under federal law, an item is a “children’s product” if it is “primarily intended” for those 12 and under.

Now on one hand, regulation based on intent makes a good deal of sense. If the relevant standards for kids’ products really is different, there really is no other way to draw a line between what counts as a product for kids and a product for adults. There’s nothing stopping parents from giving their kids access to products that are clearly “for” adults. So it seems fair for companies to be able to say, look, we intended that product for adults…it’s not our fault if some parents decided, instead, to give our product to their kids.

But I also think it’s worth pointing out that while regulations may focus on the manufacturer’s intentions, the relevant ethical standard should point to reasonable expectations. The makers of the glasses in question here may well have intended their product to be used primarily by adults, but the question they should have asked themselves is whether glasses with fantasy characters on them can in fact reasonably be expected to end up in the hands of kids. And if so, they should adhere to standards that are relevant to that expectation.

Thanks to LH for alerting me to this story.

1 comment so far

  1. Paulette on

    I think it highlights the possibly unintentional lack of critical thought when the glasses were designed. Regardless of the target age group, how any given product may be used must be part of the assessment, particularly when there are differing standards. Even if targeted to adults, a glass (especially one with interesting pictures) is certainly something that would appeal to a child in a family setting.
    The onus is on the manufacturer to take these possibilities into consideration when designing the product and establishing tolerances.
    After all, just because the permitted upper limit is higher for a product with an adult target market, does not mean you must follow that limit. There is never an issue with a manufacturer following a tighter tolerance than strictly required.
    I am surprised that the recall was simply withdrawn, with no mitigating action required. At the very least the manufacturer should have been instructed to place a warning on the package along the lines of “Not for use by a child under the age of ” – the max age where the lowered standard takes effect.
    A similar principle to the statements made on products with small parts that could be a choking hazard for young children.

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