The public is wary in the wake of a heated debate between ConsumerAffairs.com and retail giant Wal-Mart over toxicity levels in pet toys manufactured in China.
One Ohio pet owner described her reaction as “scared and horrified” after reading a ConsumerAffairs.com story that revealed what a forensic toxicologist called elevated levels of lead, chromium, and cadmium in two Chinese-made pet toys sold at Wal-Mart.
“I bought one of those toys for my two dogs,” pet owner Karen N. told the online consumer magazine. “Now I’m really afraid because (the forensic toxicologist) in the article said the toy could shorten my dogs’ lives. This makes me sick.”
Karen said this is the second time this year that she’s purchased the green monster toys for her dogs. Now she is worried about lead building up in her dogs’ bodies and the long-term effects that could have on their health. The dogs have not shown any signs of illness from playing with the green monster toys.
In September, ConsumerAffairs.com hired Texas-based ExperTox Analytical Laboratory to analyze four Chinese-made pet toys they had purchased from a Kansas City, MO Wal-Mart — two dog toys and two cat toys. A latex dog toy that looks like a green monster tested positive for what ExperTox’s Forensic Toxicologist and Director, Dr. Ernest Lykissa, Ph.D., called high levels of lead and the cancer-producing agent chromium. The green monster toy contained 907.4 micrograms per kilogram of lead. The lab also found other toxic metals in the toy. “There’s cadmium, arsenic, and mercury in there,” Dr. Lykissa said. “This is not a clean toy. This is toxic. Bank on it.” ExperTox also detected “worrisome” levels of cadmium in a cloth catnip toy: 236 micrograms per kilogram.
A war of words promptly ensued between ConsumerAffairs.com and Wal-Mart. Melissa O’Brien, who identified herself as representing Wal-Mart’s corporate communication (other news organizations said O’Brien told them she worked for a public relations firm called Edelman), wrote ConsumerAffairs.com an e-mail stating, “If these measurements are in fact the results, as you have reported, they have been severely misinterpreted by the director of ExperTox’s lab.” O’Brien pointed out that CPSC has a limit of 600 parts per million for the total lead in surface coating. She also demanded that ConsumerAffairs.com withdraw their story and threatened legal action if they did not comply.
ConsumerAffairs.com refused to back down. James R. Hood, ConsumerAffairs.com’s president and editor in chief, said: “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.”
ConsumerAffairs.com’s original article included the opinions of two veterinary toxicologists who said the levels of lead, chromium, and cadmium in the green monster and catnip toys did not pose a health risk to pets, but did not cite any long-term studies to back up their opinions.
Dr. Mike Murphy of the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine told ConsumerAffairs.com, “I disagree with the interpretation that’s being made (by Lykissa). I consider these to be extremely low numbers and they are not a toxicological concern for pet owners.”
Dr. Fred Oehme at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine was less adamant, saying the risks to dogs and cats from these toys depends on how much of the heavy metals are absorbed in their bodies. “Could they be harmful? The poisoning depends on how much is taken into their systems. Most animals require 30 parts per million of their total daily diet before you get into a problem with lead. Cadmium is more than that. I’m more concerned about the lead than the other two (heavy metals). Lead accumulates and if it gets into the body, it builds up.”
This isn’t the first time in recent weeks that test results on heavy metals in pet toys, and the interpretation of those findings, have pitted Dr. Lykissa against veterinary toxicologists and others in the pet industry. In late August, an Illinois pet owner, worried about the safety of the chew toys her Shelties played with, hired the laboratory at the Illinois Department of Agriculture to test 24 Chinese-made dog toys for lead.
“The only reason I tested these dog toys is because I have lost three Shelties in the last four years and I can only figure out why one of them died,” said Nancy R. of Orland Park, Illinois. She contacted ConsumerAffairs.com after reading their story about ExperTox’s results on the imported Wal-Mart chew toys.
The Illinois Department of Agriculture’s lab reported that the lead levels in all 24 dog toys Nancy tested fell within that state’s acceptable limits for lead paint in children’s toys. The highest levels of lead were found in a PetSmart tennis ball: 335.7 parts per million. The lowest levels were in a Hartz Rubber Percival Platypus: 0.02 parts per million.
“These are all within the acceptable limits for lead content in children’s toys in Illinois,” said the lab’s director, Dr. Gene Niles, a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology (DABVT). “There are no levels for lead content in pet toys. Are these numbers high or low? All I can tell you is that in Illinois, the state allows up to 600 parts per million for lead in kid’s toys and these are all within that guideline.”
The lead levels in PetSmart’s tennis ball are 335 times higher than the amount of lead ExperTox found in the green monster toy. Does that mean both toys are safe because the lead levels are far below 600 parts per million? Or does it mean they both pose a health risk to pets and the children who play with them? The answer depends on which scientists — or public relations person — you talk to.
PetSmart said its tennis balls are safe for dogs and the levels of lead do not pose any health risks. Bruce Richardson, PetSmart’s director of external communication, took exception to ConsumerAffairs.com’s comparison of the lead levels in the company’s tennis ball to those found in the green monster toy. “The terms ‘high’ and ‘elevated’ are relative terms and must be used carefully and given proper context to avoid confusion and alarm,” Richardson said. “It’s not fair to pit a (forensic) toxicologist against a veterinary toxicologist on this issue. I don’t think he (Dr. Lykissa) has a leg to stand on. He’s not a veterinary toxicologist and has no point of reference when he talks about elevated levels.”
ExperTox disagreed. The lab’s manager said the levels of lead in PetSmart’s tennis ball are elevated and ExperTox does not consider them safe. “Weight is always a factor,” Donna Coneley said. “If you’re dealing with a teacup-size dog you can’t assume that what’s safe for a 20-pound child is safe for a three- to ten-pound dog. Cats are light as well. Their little bodies are not able to spread out the toxins. Animals also tend to chew things off more aggressively than kids. Everyone seems to concentrate on humans with this type of testing, but maybe more scrutiny is needed on what limits are safe for pets.”
That’s the one point where nearly everyone involved in this debate agrees. “There clearly is an absence of regulations for pet toys,” Richardson said. “Maybe the guidelines … the levels … for human standards are not so good based on the exposure for dog (or cats). That’s a huge question that needs to be addressed.”
PetSmart, he said, would not object to having national “acceptable standards and levels” for lead and other toxins in pet toys.
The president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) told ConsumerAffairs.com that his members, who represent more than 900 pet product makers, importers, and livestock suppliers worldwide, would welcome such standards.
“They’re looking for a benchmark that everyone can follow,” said Bob Vetere, president of the non-profit organization. “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 be willing to work with them and help them on this issue,” he said.
The CPSC, however, said its agency currently has no regulatory control over pet products. “We only have jurisdiction over a pet-related product (that is not food), if evidence is presented that the product has put the safety of consumers at risk,” said spokesman Scott Wolfson.
Pet owner Karen from Ohio also supports the adoption of national standards for lead and other toxins in pet toys, and favors federal regulation of pet toys. “And I definitely think the CPSC should take that over. We all know that babies and toddlers put things in their mouths … they could easily put these pet toys in their mouths.”
Meanwhile, Karen and other dog owners say they’ll no longer buy pet toys made in China. But that might not be easy to do. “I can’t find any pet toys that aren’t made in China,” Karen said, adding she wished some company in the USA would start making toys for dogs and cats.