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Toy beads coated with the "date-rape" drug cause seizures

        It will come as a surprise to almost no one that National Public Radio reported on November 8 that yet another Chinese-made toy had been yanked from the market.  In this case, the toy was "AquaDots", one of Wal Mart's designated "toys of the year".   The toy was designed in Australia and manufactured in China.  A child uses the beads supplied to create a mosaic; the beads are then melded in place by applying water.  The Australian doctors at Westmead Children's Hospital responded to a child's severe illness by ordering a urine sample and found GHB, the dangerous and banned chemical described colloquially as the "date rape drug" in the child's urine.  The drug is known to cause seizures and respiratory failure and has caused fatalities.

        Follow-up investigation confirmed that the two-year old had eaten some of the beads and vomited up some just before becoming comatose.  Within 48 hours, the GHB  disappeared from his system, confirming the recent ingestion of the chemical.  The child's beads were then tested with a mass spectrometer, and the presence of GHB was confirmed on these beads, apparently used to prevent the water-soluble glues coating the beads from adhering prematurely.  Although it wasn't listed on the manufacturer's list of ingredients, GHB apparently turned up on additional beads, and another Australian child was hospitalized with seizure and coma.

        The North American distibutor of the beads immediately notified retailers to withdraw them from their shelves,  and shortly thereafter the CPSC ordered the product recalled in the U.S.  The manufacturer is now proposing to add a foul-tasting coating to the beads to discourage chidren from swallowing them.  That doesn't seem to us to be an adequate solution--particularly at a time when candy makers mimic a popular movie by selling jelly beans that taste like vomit.  It will probably be enough to satisfy the current administration's head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, however:  she has been willing to consume foul-tasting material on behalf of unregulated industry for some time now.

        Right now, our citizens are saving significant sums by out-sourcing to cheap, unregulated labor and manufacturing in the third-world, production of everything we buy.  We must have a principled discussion about whether we are willing to spend a few of those "saved" dollars to protect the safety of our children and ourselves.  It is clear that China and other third-world governments will not, or cannot, protect our consumers.  This is a new problem created by the "flat world", and our government has not only refused to address it:  under President Bush we have even stripped the CPSC budget by half.  We should be giving the matter some principled analysis and we are not.

        Legislators in Michigan should reconsider, for example, their tort-reform grant of immunity to retailers who sell defective products.  This immunity significantly reduces their financial incentive to market only safe products and eliminates their incentive to require that producers insure the products sold.  As a result, suppliers from China, for example, where the government won't allow service of process, are out of the reach of injured consumers.  And for a few cents saved on each product, our health care and welfare systems must provide for injured kids rather than the at-fault industry.

        The Bush Administration has finally proposed an "Action Plan" to address consumer safety, however, it is too little, too late, given the prior dismantling of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  The FDA would get the right to recall foods (how absurd that it doesn't have that right, today, but keep in mind that recalls have been shown to be only marginally effective in removing many products from retail shelves or reclaiming them from purchasers).  The FDA could require foreign manufacturers to certify that products comply with its standards, however, the current debacle in product safety suggests that would be a hollow gesture.  It could levy larger fines (up to $10 million dollars), but marginal products produced by one of the thousands of marginal producers in China would be equally undeterred by potential fines of any size.  Finally, the "action plan" continues to rely on self-policing by the various industries and does not provide for the funding necessary to take an active role in actually protecting consumers.  That won't happen for as long as the "starve the beast of government" mentality remains prevalent.

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