Toxic chemical toy settlement reminds parents to remain vigilant

Aquadots recalled toxic toy
CC BY 2.0 US CPSC

In July 2007, Mark and Beth Monje's son swallowed some of the bright toy beads from his Aqua Dots art set. The toy encourages kids above choking hazard age (4+) to arrange colorful beads into patterns. When sprayed with water, the dots "melt" and fuse into a picture.

The toy was recalled in 2007 after nine children in the U.S. and three in Australia became sick from the beads. Tests showed that the chemical coating on the beads turned into the dangerous date-rape drug gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) when digested.

The Monje's just "won" what may be the first of several Aqua Dots lawsuits. But $58,000 compensation for medical bills and $377,000 for pain and suffering don't seem like much of a "win" for a family dealing with permanent brain damage, affecting their son's fine motor skills and sense of smell.

The manufacturer and distributor of the toxic Aqua Dots toy were held liable, while the store that sold the toy was cleared of responsibility.

US CPSC/CC BY 2.0

The sad tale carries a strong reminder of several important lessons:

1) Keep an eye out for product recalls

You can usually find recalls advertised in the departments where you bought products originally. The Consumer Product Safety Commission also operates a website where recalls are published. Registering purchases with manufacturers can put you on mailing lists in case of recalls (if you are willing to risk the annoying marketing that may accompany registration).

2) Product safety laws only go so far

Most product safety laws rely a lot on Corporate Responsibility and government enforcement and testing. If a company does not declare the toxins, and the product is not tested, the toxic toy may still make it to the market. In the case of Aqua Dots, the toy company Moose Enterprises specified a formulation using 1,5-pentanediol, a relatively harmless chemical. But the pentanediol was 3 to 7 times more expensive than 1,4-butanediol, a chemically similar plasticizer. The difference is a mere one carbon atom longer chain between two alcohol groups. You can compare this to methanol and ethanol: ethanol is one carbon larger than methanol. The difference makes ethanol a fine entertainment in cocktails, beer, and wine while methanol blinds people. The 1,4-butanediol substituted by Moose's Chinese supplier turns into the date-rape drug, causing dangerous side effects in the sensitive brains of young children.

The U.S. distributor of the toy, Spin Master, reportedly told the court that they still do not test for the hazardous chemical in their toys, which are now marketed under the brand names Pixos and Chixos.

3) Take care at garage sales

Scott Wolfson, communication director for the Consumer Protection Safety Commission, warns: "It's important for parents to know that if this is a product that has lingered in a toy chest that was put in the attic, do not put this product for sale in a garage sale or give it up to charity, just dispose of it." And if you are a parent at a garage sale, make sure you are not picking up a toy for which someone else missed a recall.

Distributor Spin Master already paid a $1.3 million penalty for failing to report the toy's hazards appropriately, while not admitting to knowingly violating laws against importing hazardous substances.

If you want to look at the positive side of things, at least alert doctors quickly sleuthed out the source of the early victims' illnesses, and the toy was recalled promptly, which certainly protected many children from harm. It would be better if the system worked to prevent any child from coming to harm, but it is proof that recalls remain an important part of our consumer product safety network.

Tags: Chemicals | Toxins | Toys

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