By Maurice Possley

Prompted by the recall of 1.5 million Thomas & Friends wooden railway toys by an Oak Brook-based toymaker and a growing number of recalls of Chinese-manufactured toys, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on Monday called for a congressional hearing to investigate reports of unsafe imports.

Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction for product recalls, asked for Senate action "in analyzing the underlying concerns of safety for our children, China's role and what can be done to safeguard children from these potentially harmful products," according to a statement released by her staff.

A Tribune analysis of data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission shows that since January 2004, the agency has issued 303 recalls for children's products, including 94 recalls of toys. A total of 218 of those recalls -- or 72 percent -- were for products manufactured in China.

The vast majority of the toys marketed in the United States are made in China, a fact reflected in the CPSC recall data. A total of 78 of the 94 toy recalls -- 83 percent -- during that time period were for toys made in China.

Tribune findings 'unbelievable'

In a telephone interview, Klobuchar called the statistics compiled by the Tribune "unbelievable. The numbers are startling and really provide evidence that there has to be a full-blown hearing and a change in the way we regulate these products."

The CPSC has been under fire recently, following a Tribune investigation that revealed how the agency missed red flags and bungled the recall of the popular Magnetix toys. Tiny magnets in the toys came loose, causing intestinal injuries to numerous children who swallowed them and the death of a suburban Seattle boy in 2005.

Nancy Nord, head of the agency, said at a congressional hearing that the CPSC is struggling to regulate such toys and is hampered by a lack of money and staff. Magnetix toys are made in China.

On June 13, the agency and RC2 Corp. announced the recall of the Thomas & Friends wooden railway toys after some of the toys were found to have been covered with paint containing lead in excess of U.S. lead standards designed to protect children from the toxic metal.

In calling for a hearing, Klobuchar said her concern comes from a number of areas, including that "I am a mom of a 12-year-old, who likes toys."

Klobuchar, the former chief prosecutor in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, also is aware of the death of 4-year-old Jarnell Brown last year. Brown died in Minneapolis of extreme lead poisoning after he swallowed a lead-tainted heart-shaped charm that came as a promotional item with a pair of Reebok athletic shoes.

Reebok recalled 300,000 of the charms, which were manufactured in China. "That really gripped our community," Klochubar said.

She also is alarmed at the growing number of recalls of children's toys and other children's products because of lead contamination.

A Tribune analysis of all lead recalls in the past 30 years since lead paint was banned in the U.S. reveals 133 recalls, the vast majority of which involved Chinese-manufactured products.

Array of problem areas

The items range from baby cribs and children's furniture to children's clothing and boys' toys. Of the 65 recalls for items containing lead paint, like the Thomas & Friends toys, more than half of the recalls and nearly half of the items recalled -- a total of 4.6 million -- have occurred since January 2004. More than 80 percent of those items came from China.

There have been another 68 recalls for products containing lead itself totaling more than 175 millions items, primarily children's jewelry. While much of the jewelry was sold in vending machines, Mattel's American Girl Inc. recalled 180,000 pieces of children's jewelry made in China.

"It seems like such an outrage that you can have a product from a country that doesn't follow the regulations," Klobuchar said. "We can't continue to let kids die or get injured because one country doesn't do it.",1,2676834.story