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Barbie Poisoning

I remember the year I eased the Barbie ban. It started with a lazy holiday shrug and ended with a dozen naked plastic bodies strewn about the house.

I never bought a Barbie myself. Yet, a few years and a few children later, the Barbie population in our house surged beyond a hundred. Not that anyone has performed an actual census. You could take a sample count of a square-foot area of carpet and extrapolate from there. At one point I gathered them into three large plastic tubs and “lost” them in the basement. More Barbies quickly appeared to take their place.

I’ve overcome the impulse to rampage through the house forcing tiny shirts over those matted blond pony tails. In fact, I rarely notice the dolls anymore. I nudge wafer-thin naked bodies aside as I wade through the little girls’ bedroom in search of the last diaper in the house. I nonchalantly toss Barbies out of the shoe bin as I search for the other Tinkerbell tennis shoe.

The problems that bother me today are not the same ones that bothered me years ago. For example, I’ve grown accustomed to Barbie’s unattainable figure. At one time critics claimed the doll would be 5-foot-9 inches tall and 110 pounds if she were a real live woman.

In recent years, Mattel remodeled Barbie’s figure to look more like that of a teen. It’s not that they were concerned about the rates of anorexia on catwalks or in high schools, or the record number of adult women seeking breast augmentation. Rather, it was a response to the whims of fashion.

“In order for the hip-huggers to look right, Barbie needs to be more like a teen’s body,” Mattel spokesperson Lisa McKendall told Mother Jones magazine before the 1997 change. “The fashions teens wear now don’t fit properly on our current sculpting.”

That’s the nice thing about plastic bodies, I suppose. They can be re-sculpted to fit the clothes. Thus, Barbie’s breasts were pared down, her waist thickened a tad, and her hips made even narrower.

Barbie has become more diverse as well as (slightly) more realistic. The platinum blond hair has been varied with auburn, brown, black and shades of gold. Various skin tones and even different facial features now adorn the dolls.

Before her recent conversion to a teen, Barbie ventured into careers that would make any feminist proud. She enjoyed stints as an astronaut, a doctor, a paleontologist and a presidential candidate.

So what’s my beef with Barbie? I don’t think she’s very American. When 675,000 Barbie accessories were recalled due to lead paint applied in China, I picked up one those naked dolls and looked at the stamp on Barbie’s backside: Made in China.

Mattel, the maker of Barbie and owner of Fisher-Price, is the largest toy company in America. Lately Mattel has been in the news not because of a hot must-have Christmas toy, but because of tainted toys made in China.

So far, Mattel has paid $975,000 this year alone for failing to report safety hazards and recalled over 10 million toys. The safety hazard, typically consist of lead paint or dangerous magnets.

One of the recalled toys is Barbie’s dog Tanner. Tanner eats and poops plastic-coated metal dog biscuits. Barbie picks them up with her magnetic pooper-scooper and deposits them into the trash can–which is also the dog biscuit dispenser!

As if recycled poop biscuits were not enough reason to recall Tanner, the tiny magnets are a major safety hazard to young children who swallow them. When two or more magnets become lodged in different sections of the intestines, they may stick together to the point of perforating of the intestines. The recalled toys, including Barbie’s biscuit-eating dog, have frequently been of Chinese manufacture.

Barbie is not alone. Approximately 80 percent of the world’s toys are manufactured in China. One reason Chinese goods dominate the world market is that the Chinese government artificially devalues its currency to make its products the cheapest in the world. As China takes over whole industries, local manufacturers either outsource to China or go out of business, making those countries dependent on Chinese-made goods.

Just imagine the cycle. Every Christmas, American parents fill their children’s stockings with cheap plastic junk made in China. Meanwhile, many of these same parents are losing their jobs because they cannot compete with the cheap labor of China.

Outsourcing causes inflation-adjusted wages to fall here in America, further ensuring that Americans can only afford to put cheap plastic toys under the tree.

Factor in the lead poisoning of our children–which can lead to lower IQs, physical and mental disabilities and decreased career success long-term–and you have the makings of a very ugly downward spiral.

What’s the antidote to Barbie poisoning? It starts with buying American-made toys. If “buy American” sounds passé, it is not just because Chinese toy makers have lulled us into a lead-paint stupor. The fact is that American-made goods are more expensive. A quick search online reveals that natural toys made with wood and non-toxic paint cost several times what we expect to pay for cheap Chinese junk.

It is time to remember the old adage, “You get what you pay for.” Opt for fewer gifts of higher quality. In the long run, quality gifts have more character and last longer.

The U.S. government has a responsibility to test every child in America for lead poisoning. There are now so many tainted toys in so many millions of homes, that recalls cannot possibly be effective in getting the lead out of America’s nurseries.

Testing is urgent because lead poisoning is cumulative. The longer the duration of the exposure, the greater the brain damage will be. There are medications to treat lead poisoning, but the most important aspect of treatment is removing the lead source.

Health departments, schools and daycares should provide the venue for free screening to determine which children need treatment and which toy boxes need to be purged. Mattel and other violators should pay for the cost of the testing and treatment.

Finally, the importers must be held accountable. We cannot regulate Chinese companies, but we can regulate Mattel. Importers should be required to prove their goods meet the same standards as American-made goods.

Since the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) does not have access to Chinese manufacturers, accountability must happen within our borders. Importers should be required to submit to independent testing on a regular basis. The CPSC, which has been rendered somewhat toothless by Republican administrations, should have authority (and funding) to drop in at any store or distribution point, and test at random. The CPSC should impose penalties that serve not only to punish and deter, but also to clean up and compensate for violations.

A side benefit of import compliance is that it will somewhat neutralize the cost differential between imports and domestic goods. Apparently lead paint, antifreeze and other toxic ingredients are cheap and plentiful in China. Currently American manufacturers must spend more than Chinese manufacturers to comply with safety regulations. Holding importers to the same standards will level the playing field.

When China is no longer so much cheaper, manufacturing jobs will return to America. Perhaps even Barbie will come home.

Jeannie Babb Taylor is a wife, a mother, entrepreneur and writer in Ringgold, Ga. This column is adapted from her blog, “On the Other Hand.”