Consumer Affairs to Wal-Mart: Less Spin, More Action

Posted by on Sep 20, 2007 in updates | No Comments

When Consumer Affairs found high levels of toxic chemicals on pet toys sold at Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart’s PR department sat up and listened. But <a href=”an article today on explains that rather than address the problem, Wal-Mart simply tried to spin it out of existence.

    Instead of following the lead of other toy industry players by redoubling its inspections, Wal-Mart called out its publicists and spin doctors from Edelman, which calls itself the “world’s leading independent global PR firm,” to try to discredit Lykissa [Director of ExperTox testing lab] and to try to intimidate ConsumerAffairs.Com. Wal-Mart, through its Edelman mouthpieces, also backed off an earlier pledge to re-inspect the toys.

Wal-Mart’s representatives demanded Consumer Affairs take its findings off its website, and threatened legal action if the organization failed to act quickly. The article in question, may we remind you, was simply revealing what Consumer Affairs had found in its analysis.

Is this Wal-Mart’s typical response to independent product testing? To first state that “there’s no problem here” and then demand the testers cover up their information? If Consumer Affairs’ account of this situation is accurate, it raises SERIOUS concerns about Wal-Mart’s ability to admit to and take responsibility for problems with its products. Is this how Wal-Mart reacts to infant toy recalls? To food recalls? And is this what the company means when it claims to help customers “live better?”

Industry Responds to Reports of Lead in Wal-Mart Pet Toys [ConsumerAffairs]

Companies that make and import dog and cat toys are now triple-checking their products to be sure they’re tested for lead and other toxins.

That action—according to the president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA)—is the result of a story that revealed two Chinese-made pet toys sold at Wal-Mart stores contained what a forensic toxicologist said were elevated levels of lead, chromium, and cadmium.

“Everyone (in this industry) is well aware of your story,” AAPMA’s President Bob Vetere said. His non-profit association represents more than 900 pet product manufacturers, importers, and livestock suppliers worldwide.

“And the reaction from virtually everyone I’ve talked to about the story is: ‘Wait a minute. We didn’t know about this. Hello, what’s going on?’ And they’ve called their vendors and suppliers to be sure they’re testing the products.

“It’s good that you got this out there so they (our members) could know, and they are pushing very hard on their vendors now to get those test results. If nothing else, everyone is now aware of this in the industry.” hired ExperTox Analytical Laboratory in Texas to test four Chinese-made toys—two for dogs and two for cats—for heavy metals and other toxins. We purchased the four pet toys earlier this month at a Wal-Mart store in Kansas City, Missouri. All the toys had a tag attached that read “Marketed by Wal-Mart stores and Made in China.”

We chose the toys at random at Wal-Mart. Two of them—a latex toy for dogs that looks like a green monster and a cloth catnip one—revealed what the lab’s forensic toxicologist called elevated levels of lead, chromium, and cadmium.

Two veterinarians told the levels of heavy metals found in the toys do not, in their opinion, pose a threat to dogs or cats. Whether they are a hazard to children and adults who handle the chew toys is unclear.

“Poison is poison”

But a physician who specializes in the removal of metals from humans told us that it’s always worrisome if a toxin—like lead—gets into the body.

“Poison is poison,” said Dr. Rashid Buttar, head of the Center for Advanced Medicine and Clinical Research in Huntersville, North Carolina. “I’m a dog lover and, no, I don’t want my dog to be chewing on dog toy that has lead.

Dr. Buttar described the levels of lead that ExperTox found in the green monster toy – 907.4 micrograms per kilogram—as “bad.”

“It’s absolutely worrisome to me if that green monster toy gets in a toddler’s mouth,” he said.

But he also pointed out that those levels are common: “Kids are being exposed to lead left and right…lead is all over the place.”

That does not lessen the risk, however. Since lead builds up in the body, it is the total accumulation over time that is harmful. Thus, even small amounts contribute to potentially devastating health effects in children who, like dogs and cats, are smaller than adult humans and thus more susceptible to small amounts of a toxic substance.

“Rock solid”

ExperTox stands by its findings and calls them “rock solid.”

The lab’s tests on the green monster toy revealed it contained 907.4 micrograms per kilogram of lead.

“That’s almost one part per million,” said forensic toxicologist Dr. Ernest Lykissa, Ph.D., director of ExperTox’s lab. “With that kind of concentration, if a dog is chewing on it or licking it, he’s getting a good source of lead.”

The green monster toy also had what Lykissa considered elevated levels of the cancer-producing agent chromium—334.9 micrograms per kilogram.

“With that kind of chromium in there you have what can be an extremely toxic toy if they (animals) put it in their mouths. And dogs put things in their mouths. If a dog puts this in his mouth, he runs a big chance of getting some type of metal toxicity that may shorten his life.”

The lab also found other toxic metals in the green monster toy.

“There’s cadmium, arsenic, and mercury in there,” Lykissa said. “This is not a clean toy. This is toxic. Bank on it.” ExperTox’s tests on the catnip toys detected “worrisome” levels of cadmium – 236 micrograms per kilogram.

“That’s a big number,” Lykissa said. “It’s a good dose of cadmium.”

The forensic toxicologist said Wal-Mart should pull these pet toys off the market because of the levels of heavy metals.

“Or put a warning label on them that says if you put this (toy) in your mouth you will get poisoned,” Lykissa said. “There is nothing good about the agents (in these toys) that I’m reporting to you.”

Wal-Mart calls the spinmasters

Instead of following the lead of other toy industry players by redoubling its inspections, Wal-Mart called out its publicists and spin doctors from Edelman, which calls itself the “world’s leading independent global PR firm,” to try to discredit Lykissa and to try to intimidate ConsumerAffairs.Com. Wal-Mart, through its Edelman mouthpieces, also backed off an earlier pledge to re-inspect the toys.

While Wal-Mart claims to dispute ExperTox’s findings, companies that manufacture pet toys are making sure their products are tested — and safe for dogs and cats.

“I’m at the pet show at Las Vegas and the people I’ve talked to at this show are concerned (by the lab’s findings),” Vetere said. “They want to make sure they’re not part of the problem and, are not affected by this problem. They do not want to do anything foolish to jeopardize the safety of pets.

“There’s certainly cause for everybody to pay attention to this report,” he added. “Some people might say ‘oh my goodness, how can this happen?’ And another group might say the results are bogus. But as with any crisis, everybody’s got to take a deep breath, check the information, and check their products. And that’s what’s happening now.”

Vetere said most companies that make pet toys routinely test their products. “Certainly every large company is testing for toxins—not just lead—but all sorts of toxins.”

PetSmart and the KONG Company told us earlier this week that they routinely test their dog and cat toys for lead and other toxins.

But what are the federal guidelines on acceptable levels of those materials in pet toys? And who makes sure the industry follows those benchmarks?

Industry seeks standards

“While the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) tests all toys that come in contact with humans, there’s not a similar organization that test products specifically intended for animals, and there’s not a specific organization that controls pet toys,” Vetere said. “But any toys that is intended to come into contact with an animal is just as likely to come into contact with a child.

“The makers of pet toys are smart enough to follow those same standards set for kids’ toys and apply them to pet toys…because again, in most cases, pet toys are played with by children.”

The CPSC is the obvious—“most common sense”—federal agency to oversee pet products, Vetere said.

And his members would welcome guidance from the commission on this issue.

“They’re looking for a benchmark that everyone can follow,” he said. “Maybe what we need is to have everyone sit down at a table and talk about what makes sense. It’s not going to be easy to find an answer, but it’s a process that has to start. The CPSC is certainly somebody that needs to be sitting at that table, and we’d (APPMA) certainly willing to work with them and help them on this issue.”

The CPSC, however, remains on the sideline on this issue. A spokesman, in the agency’s usual terse and legalistic style, told us the agency only concerns itself with products that harm humans. He did not address the potential danger to children and adults who might be exposed to the pet toys.

“Pet industry concerned”

During our interview with Vetere, he said he shares pet owners’ concerns about ExperTox’s findings.

“And my message to pet owners is that the pet industry is very concerned when something like this happens. Our members are as on top of this as they can be and they are on top of making sure their products are safe.

“Most people in the pet industry are in it because they love pets and they are as concerned as any pet owner out there.”

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has gone on the defensive and attacked ExperTox’s findings. Melissa O’Brien, who identified herself as representing Wal-Mart’s corporate communications department, said the lab “severely misinterpreted” the findings and demanded retract the story. Other news organizations said O’Brien told them she worked for Edelman.

“After reviewing these test results provided to us today on the pet products in your story . . . the results of these tests actually prove the products are VERY safe,” O’Brien told us in an e-mail. “If these measurements are in fact the results, as you have reported, they have been severely misinterpreted by the director of ExperTox’s lab, if he is reporting these levels to be ‘high’ or dangerous.

“To the contrary by this lab’s own report, these levels are considered very low and actually much lower than what is acceptable by regulatory bodies in the U.S. and Europe for products, including children’s toys,” she said.

O’Brien referred to what’s called the ASTM F-963 – or the Standard Consumer Safety Specification on Toy Safety. She said that has a limit of 90 parts per million for accessible lead in toys.

She also said the CPSC has a limit of 600 parts per million for the total lead in surface coating. In fact, the CPSC has no standard for pet toys and has not determined what levels of toxins are safe for animals, its spokesman told us.

“By comparison, the highest concentration of lead found in any of the ExperTox tests is a very low 907.4 parts per million—nearly 100 times less than the ASTM limit for toys and more than 600 times less than the CPSC limit for surface coatings,” she said.

Wal-Mart, she said, uses independent labs that specialize in consumer product testing and data analysis to avoid what she called such “misinterpretations.” She did not name any of those labs, and did not supply the names of any scientists who could refute the Expertox findings.

“The conclusions drawn in this article appear to have been based on incorrect interpretations of the data, and based on the opinions of a person (who is) not an expert in consumer product testing,” said O’Brien, who did not indicate that she had any scientific credentials.

O’Brien also demanded that remove the story for its Web site and threatened legal action if we did not comply.

“Ms. O’Brien should go back to school and learn how to be a responsible and effective public affairs executive,” said James R. Hood, ConsumerAffairs.Com president and editor in chief. “Threatening the press with legal action is not a very good way to present your company’s point of view.

“If Wal-Mart wants to sue us, we will meet them in any court in the land and we look forward to what we will find in the discovery process,” Hood said. “Until then, they should act like responsible corporate citizens instead of trying to silence consumer outlets with playground-bully tactics.”

Hood said will continue to gather evidence—and report stories—about the harm inflicted on pets, children, and adults by toxic imports.

“America’s largest retailer owes more to its customers than trying to goon-squad its critics into silence,” he said. “It is being ill-served by its very expensive public relations firm. It should speak to the press directly.”

Response to slurs

Despite Wal-Mart’s slurs about his credentials, Dr. Lykissa is an expert at consumer product testing, according to ExperTox.

“He has done so much testing on the Dow breast implants and that’s a product,” said Donna Coneley, ExperTox’s lab manager. “Wal-Mart can do its own research and see how long he’s been involved in that testing. It goes back to the first claims on silicone breast implant poisoning.

“We also do such a wide variety of testing in this lab because we have the latest technology for doing heavy metal analysis,” she said, referring to the lab’s ICP-MS—or Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.

Lykissa told us that’s the machine his lab used to test our pet toys for heavy metals.

“These (toxic) materials came off the toys freely, like with the lick of the tongue from a dog or cat,” he told us. “They were readily liberated from these toys. We didn’t take a sledge hammer and pound on them. I just did what a dog or cat would do by licking it. That’s why this is so serious.”

Toxicologists at the lab cut off a small piece from each of the toys, weighed the samples, and put them in acidic water.

“We left the samples for a while and then heated them up to body temperature,” Lykissa said. “Then we put them in (the ICP-MS) and that machine told us this is lead and this is chromium …

“We didn’t dissolve the toys,” he added. “These materials were leeching off the toys. Whatever leeched off the toys is what I’m reporting to you. The material came right off. Somebody’s saliva or the sweat in their hands would freely pick up these materials. And that’s absorbing it. If you ate the materials, like a dog might, it would be worse.”

But pet toys aren’t the only consumer products ExperTox has tested.

“We have so many companies all over the world that come to us for tests,” Coneley said. “We’ve tested Mexican-made medication to see if they have the same amount of medicine as those made in America. We’ve also tested silicone breast implants, pet foods and treats, and we tested toys for kids a couple of years ago.”

Consumers, she said, can trust ExperTox’s findings: “We stand by our results. We can guarantee they’re rock solid.”

ExperTox, however, doesn’t look at ASTM or CPSC limits during its testing procedures, Coneley said.

“We simply pour out our results as we receive them. We don’t look at the limits on products. If Wal-Mart says the limits are less, than I believe them.”

Let consumers decide

But ExperTox’s test results, Coneley said, give consumers the tools to make more informed decisions.

“That’s what this is all about, giving people more information that I feel will help them make a better choice. If a vet says he think our results are extremely low numbers than people can take that information and balance it against what Dr. Lykissa said to make a better decision.”

What about Wal-Mart’s argument that the CPSC limits for lead in surface coatings are 600 times less than the amount (of lead) detected in the green monster toy?

“I’ve never seen a dog lick lead paint,” Coneley said. “If someone wants to give a dog a toy with those levels (of lead) that’s their choice and I’m not going to argue with that.

“But in our opinion, that level of lead (907.4 micrograms per kilogram) is considered elevated and there are other choices (for pet owners). My choice would be to go with a more natural treat. I would not go with one that had elevated levels of chromium, lead, or cadmium. What you’re doing (with this testing) gives consumers more choices on what to purchase for their animals.”

Coneley said Wal-Mart’s harsh criticism of the lab’s findings—and its interpretations—aren’t surprising.

“We’ve had that argument before from major companies that we’ve misinterpreted the results,” she said. “But we’ve never been found liable of that. We get this defensiveness every time there is a question about a sample we test. And the larger the company, the more aggressive and defensive they are. This is consistent with what I’ve seen. It’s textbook for a large corporation.”

But the lab’s test results—and the science behind them—don’t lie, Coneley said.

“These are actual, valid numbers. Whether or not they’re toxic to a dog (or cat) is left to interpretation. All we can do is give our opinion and cooperate with the Food and Drug Administration or other governmental agency, which we’ve done many times.”

As we reported, Dr. Lykissa said the heavy metals his lab found in the pet toys—lead, chromium, and cadmium—are potentially toxic.

Lead, he said, goes to the brain and causes learning disorders in children. “It’s also implicated in high instances of heart attacks. It is a very heavy metal.”

Chromium, he said, is a cancer-producing agent. “It can cause cancer in the bladder and kidneys, and if it’s inhaled, cause cancer in the lungs. There’s nothing good about chromium.

“And cadmium is a horrible thing to get into the body. It creates havoc in the joints, kidneys, and lungs,” he added. “That catnip toy has 236 (micrograms per kilograms) of cadmium. That’s something that somebody out there ought to be worried about. In my business, if you’re going to sit there and let dogs and cats play with a toy that has heavy metals freely released from it—and put it in their mouths – it becomes a concern.”

Pet owners respond

Pet owners who’ve contacted us say they’re outraged by Expertox’s findings. One pet owner called on consumers to stop buying chew toys made in China. And another wants the federal government to take action.

“After reading the horrifying article about dog toys being sold at Wal-Mart, I am very ticked off—mainly at our government,” wrote Bill Schroedle of Lockport, Illinois. “The government should have control of what is being imported from China and any other country. All Wal-Mart sees is money.

“I will never buy anything that is made in China or anywhere else but ‘Made In The USA.’ Who knows what else is out there that is dangerous.”

Kathy K. of Northville, Michigan, agrees that consumers should refuse to buy pet toys made in China.

“The recent story that came out in about pet toys from China purchased at Wal-Mart containing lead and other toxins is the ‘tip of the iceberg’,” she said. “It is likely that most pet toys from China contain things that are bad for our pets—just as so many things from China are bad for humans. We have decided not to purchase any more pet toys made in China. We think everyone should pay more attention to this and refuse to purchase any pet toys that are made in China.”

Kathy said her family’s dog became sick after playing with a chew toy made in China.

“Our Boston Terrier kept throwing up and we finally narrowed it down to the toy squirrel we had purchased for her. After looking at the label and noting it was ‘Made in China’ we then looked at all the other pet toys we’ve purchased. Every single one said ‘Made in China.’

“Once we took the toy squirrel away from her toy box, she stopped throwing up,” Kathy added. “We tried giving it back to her and she started throwing up again . . . pet toys from China are harming and perhaps killing our pets.”

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