Jennifer KatchesA procession of Thomas toys ready for zapping
A small wooden train, as green as grass, is placed carefully on a foot-high platform directly over a red beam of light.
The beam comes from an X-ray fluorescence gun fastened to a stand below. The unit rests on my desk on the second floor of the California Watch newsroom. A protective lid closes tight.
The X-ray gun looks like a cross between a power drill and Captain Kirk’s hand phaser – the Dirty Harry version. I call it the Big Zapper.
And I've got a lot of zapping to do. Next to the testing equipment, dozens of multicolored toy trains are arranged in a pile to be tested for lead, a toxic metal still found in jewelry, toys and even candy. The green train engine will go first.
The testing equipment can transmit beams of light through a wide range of consumer goods – measuring whether dangerous levels of lead and other metals are present. In less than a minute, a wireless hand-held device spits out results in parts per million.
California Watch recently worked with the Center for Environmental Health to screen jewelry using a similar device. We found alarming levels of lead in 20 percent of the jewelry we tested. We confirmed our findings at a Bay Area laboratory, Forensics Analytical.
Reporters Joanna Lin and Mandy Hofmockel wrote the story, examining how state officials regulate retailers that repeatedly sell lead-tainted jewelry. The story focused on one national chain, Rainbow Apparel, that has been cited five times in 16 months by California regulators for selling more than two dozen different jewelry pieces with illegal levels of lead. Despite its history of problems, Rainbow has not been fined by the state. Our testing emerged as a key part of the story.
The Quickshot "zapper" looks like a cross between a hand phaser and a power drill
When California Watch tested the jewelry, there was a part of me that wanted to see high results. Stories grow more powerful if we uncover problems that no one else knows about. And as the editorial director of California Watch, I want my reporters to find big-time problems, especially if exposing them can prompt solutions.
It happened with our lead jewelry story. Even before we published, the findings led Rainbow to pull specific jewelry off store shelves. The company has more than 1,000 stores nationwide.
That brings me to my own toy testing initiative, and the pile of small train toys next to the Big Zapper. The more hits, the better, right? The more name-brand toys that are dangerous, the bigger the story.
That’s the journalist talking.
Except these aren’t any toys.
These belong to my three-year-old son, Luke. The last thing his dad wants to find is a problem.
Luke, like a lot of little boys, is train-obsessed. He has memorized Thomas poems from his favorite book “Railway Rhymes.” He plays with his trains and his tracks before school and after. We have to pry him away for meals, for baths and for bed.
Jennifer KatchesFrom left, Bulgy, Henry, Thomas, Duncan
His toy bin includes most of the Thomas & Friends wooden railway characters. Thomas. Percy. Gordon. James. Edward. Henry. Lady. Spencer. Toby. Emily. Breakdown Train. Rheneas. Harvey. Terence. Duncan. Spencer. George. Deisel 10. Rocky. Hector. On and on. They may look alike to me. But Luke can identify the most obscure Thomas characters from the slight variations of their smiling faces. We have enough wooden track to weave through the living room, into the kitchen and back again.
The local toy store owner sees us coming and the problems of a debilitating recession seem to melt away, if only for a moment.
But are the toys that my only child loves so much safe? I’m about to find out.
Three years ago many of them were not. RC2, the Illinois company that makes the popular Thomas & Friends wooden trains under the Learning Curve brand, issued a voluntary recall, just weeks after Luke was born. The June 2007 recall came long before Luke would utter his first high-pitched train “toots” or launch into conversation with his favorite engines as he pushed them along his wooden tracks, through signal houses and over bridges.
More than 20 different wooden engines, train cars and train set pieces were affected by the recall. Interestingly, most of the trains were painted red. Beloved characters like James and Skarloey were among the items pulled off shelves. A few months later, the company issued a second recall involving five more Thomas & Friends train toys.
We bought all of Luke’s trains in 2010. Three years after the recalls, had things changed?
On to the testing. Up first is Henry, the long green No. 3 train. Henry wimps out going up hills and tends to whine a lot. I can deal with that – if he’s lead-free.
To get started, I tap the hand-held control pad connected to the Quickshot XRF. The beam activates, and I hold my breath. I don’t want to have to explain to Luke why his toys have mysteriously disappeared. But if Henry tests high, he's a goner. I’m not going to think twice about dumping him in the trash.
Henry: 0.92865 parts per million.
Henry contains lead, according to the Big Zapper. But it’s a tiny amount, almost undetectable. The American Academy of Pediatrics said in 2007 that any children's product under 40 ppm should not pose a danger or cause parents to worry.
One after another, the trains are placed on the screening platform. One after another, the results register far beneath the danger point. The front car for Rocky, a red crane that contains three separate cars, had the highest amount of lead at 19 ppm. Right behind Rocky is Duncan, a mustard yellow train engine with 18 ppm of lead.
Next up for testing: Bulgy. He registers 6.7 ppm on his side and 1.1 ppm on his top. Trace amounts. Then Mighty Mac. Totally clean. I tested most engines or cars at least twice – once on the side and once with the red beam directed at either the bottom or top of the toy.
“I wouldn’t be concerned about those levels,” said Charles Margulis, the communications director at the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health, which routinely tests toys and jewelry for lead and other dangerous compounds.
He added that a child could probably play every day with toys at 18 ppm or 19 ppm and never experience any ill effects. The levels are so small, he said, that the Quickshot device could have picked up lead from the atmosphere.
I moved on to some of the newer trains painted with bright red paint – earlier versions of which had been part of the first 2007 voluntary recall. Toys such as James and Rheneas came back clean, registering undetectable levels of lead in my limited testing.
Learning Curve, the RC2 subsidiary that also makes toys for Disney's "Toy Story" franchise, has instituted several precautions as part of its "multi-check safety system" to ensure its toys are safe for children. The measures include strict certification standards for suppliers.
Jamie A. Kieffer, the chief marketing officer at Learning Curve, said the company conducts its own testing using more precise "wet chemistry" methods and doesn't comment on outside testing results. He noted, however, that the lead levels detected by the Big Zapper were so low that it would be difficult to distinguish between 0 and 19 ppm. He seemed to be happy with the results, which I sent along to him. He ended his last e-mail to me with the words, "We appreciate the good news."
So Luke gets to keep his Thomas toys. And his parents can find something else to worry about. That won't be hard to do.
UPDATE: The Center for Environmental Health tells me that they have two upcoming opportunities for parents to have their children's toys tested. The first will be Monday, Oct. 18 from 10 a.m. to noon at Monument Community First 5, 1736 Clayton Road in Concord.
The second event will be Saturday, Oct. 23 at La Clinica Health Fair at 1001 Stoneman Ave. in Pittsburg from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.