Halloween and the lead monster

After feasting on Halloween candy a few days ago, America’s children are right about now coming down off their (latest) sugar high. Luckily for parents and schoolteachers, sugar in small doses is fairly harmless.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for lead, which many kids also probably came into contact with during their trick-or-treating. Just last week, an Ashland University chemist found one in seven Halloween products he sampled from Ohio stores contained lead levels above the maximum allowed by U.S. law. The discovery should alarm consumers everywhere.

Lead is not like sugar. It is typically ingested accidentally through tiny particles, rather than deliberately eaten. And it is not innocuous — it can damage children’s nervous systems.

Lead, in short, may not be a werewolf or a vampire, but it is the monster in a real-life horror story that will go on long after the Halloween costumes are returned to the attic. And this monster is the direct result of free trade and deregulation.

In recent years, our government has signed free trade pacts with many developing-world countries — countries with minimal product safety laws. Incredibly, the pacts do not include product safety standards, either. The result is that manufacturers relocate to these countries, make cheaper goods with less expensive, toxic compounds, and then, thanks to the trade pacts, dump these unsafe products into the U.S. market.

Not surprisingly, the era of free trade is the era of low-cost imports. For example, imports from China have doubled since that nation was the beneficiary of a trade accord in 2000. Today, about 80 percent of children’s toys are Chinese-made.

The problem is that standards-free trade deals with developing-world countries mean, “When we import their products, we’re importing their lax safety standards,” as Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, says.

This might be less frightening if our government were expanding product safety enforcement at home. But a new report shows the budget of our Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been halved during the free trade era — all in the name of deregulation.

“We have been disarming our ability to protect ourselves, even as the need to do so has been soaring,” says the report from my colleagues at the Campaign for America’s Future.

The few recalls the resource-starved commission has mustered highlight how dire the situation is. This summer, 20 million Chinese-made toys were recalled because of lead paint and other hazards. The Ashland University study makes clear such recalls are too rare, and that lead-soaked foreign products remain on store shelves.

There are heroes in this horror story. Brown, for example, is trying to prevent Congress from ratifying a pending package of standards-free trade deals. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., are sponsoring bills to better fund the CPSC and empower states to enforce safety standards themselves. One of those bills passed a Senate committee this week.

Predictably, the White House is employing tired arguments to both champion the trade deals and oppose the CPSC proposals — all on behalf of the manufacturers that are profiting from the status quo.

Bush Trade Representative Susan Schwab wheels out the old red herrings, saying safety should not be “an excuse for being protectionist.” Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt just says, “We can’t inspect our way to safety” — implying that we shouldn’t even try.

Then there is the Bush-appointed head of the CPSC, Nancy Nord, who formerly represented big business at the Chamber of Commerce. As Democrats this week demanded her resignation, she actually attacked the proposal to strengthen her commission, saying it might compel manufacturers to “flood the agency” with product information — as if that would be just awful.

The administration’s position is totally divorced from mainstream public opinion. Polls consistently show most Americans oppose standards-free trade policies. Similarly, Gallup reported that its latest survey “suggests an overwhelming concern on the part of Americans about the safety of Chinese products,” with most saying they would pay more to buy domestically manufactured products over the same, lower-priced Chinese goods.

Congress is haunted by money and lobbyists, so whether this tale has a happy or tragic ending is anyone’s guess. But one thing is certain: The longer Washington pushes the same trade and deregulatory agenda, the longer the lead monster will lurk, and the longer this horror story will continue.

David Sirota is a syndicated columnist based in Denver. His e-mail address is ds@davidsirota.com.

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