HOWELL, N.J. - Consumer Affairs inspectors in New Jersey have taken a proactive approach to toy safety this season, conducting random tests for lead inside stores and spot-checking shelves to be sure recalled items are not still being sold.
They're not alone. New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Illinois and California also are taking aggressive measures to help ensure toy safety as recalls mount and consumers grow more wary about the toys they're buying.
"The Consumer Product Safety Commission [CPSC] is seeing numerous states taking proactive safety measures and sharing that information with us," said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the federal agency. "That can only benefit consumers in the end."
For example, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer this month asked the federal government to recall toys that a state Consumer Protection Board investigation determined had unsafe lead levels. The lead-laden toys were discovered during random tests of products on store shelves.
In California, Attorney General Jerry Brown sued 20 companies, including Mattel Inc. and Toys "R" Us, for knowingly exposing children to lead and failing to provide warning of the risk.
The New Jersey attorney general created a toy-safety task force within the Consumer Affairs Division ahead of the busy Christmas shopping season.
Fifteen state inspectors who were assigned to the group fanned out across the state with assistance from county health-department workers, to check store shelves for recalled toys and spot-check painted toys and random metal jewelry for lead.
The inspectors also sent advisory letters to educators and charities - groups that often collect toys for holiday distribution - offering guidance on ensuring toy safety, said Joseph Palaia, chief of investigations for the state Office of Consumer Protection.
A task force sweep of 160 stores in all 21 counties found toys for sale in nine stores that should have been pulled from shelves after being recalled because of lead contamination or small parts that could be choking hazards.
During a separate spot-check in mid-December at WalMart on Route 9 in Howell, Monmouth County, inspectors found a Fisher-Price toy boat for sale, in a "Toyland" aisle, that had been on the CPSC's recall list since October.
Retailers are responsible for removing recalled toys from their shelves. Stores like WalMart keep lists, by model number, of recalled items in their computer systems. If a customer brings a recalled product to checkout, the register will block the sale with a "sale not allowed" notation, said Bill Riff, a traveling manager for WalMart.
It's easy to see how a recalled item could be missed in a store that contains tens of thousands of products. Inspectors spot-checking toys at WalMart combed jampacked aisles, looking for toys that matched those in a binder of recall notices 21 1/2 inches thick.
Even after spotting the toy boat and suspecting it matched the one on the recall list, veteran state investigator Frank Carmody had to remove the product from its packaging and search the toy for several minutes before finding the model number on the boat's underside, printed in the same bright orange as the boat and nearly impossible to read. He then had to call the CPSC to verify that the toy he was holding and the one in his binder were the same.
It's not any easier to screen for lead.
Rich Englert of the Monmouth County Health Department used a handheld instrument to check the surface of several randomly selected children's items for lead content. Anything that shows unsafe levels of lead during the field screening is taken to a lab for further testing.
Working with the state, the Monmouth County inspectors field-tested 75 children's items including a butterfly key-chain, a backpack and a toddler's touch-toy. They sent 16 of the 75 on to an independent lab for further testing; all 16 passed the more-extensive test.
Such diligence by state agencies is essential, said Ed Mierzwinski, a spokesman for the Public Interest Research Group, a consumer-protection group in Washington.
"The CPSC is a little agency with a big job. They just don't have the money or the people," said Mierzwinski. "We would lose badly in the world as consumers if state inspectors were taken off the beat."