Zhu Zhu Pets have been this year's Beanie Babies: toys that are so ridiculous in concept, so cheap and simple in execution that you knew they were going to cause long lines and incredible prices on the Black Friday back-alley aftermarket. This year being as it was, retailers were accused of under-ordering the furry robotic hamsters to either reduce inventory expense and financial exposure to slack demand, or to artificially create a consumer frenzy, depending on how jaded the retail analyst. WalletPop interviews with buyers and analysts tended to agree that the Chinese-manufactured toy was simply a surprise hit, and demand was high for no other reason than lots of kids wanted them under their trees.
What could make this toy story complete? How about a little heavy metal contamination, and a rumor of a full-fledged Zhu Zhu Pet recall? Consumer safety watchdogs GoodGuide released the group's rating of Mr. Squiggles, which says the toy has dangerous levels of tin and antimony, two substances which don't typically make recall headlines but are nonetheless linked with scary health outcomes. Tin is potentially harmful to the immune and nervous system; antimony is linked to cancer and to heart and lung problems.
Given my general suspicion of toys manufactured in China and other countries whose industrial safety standards I consider to be questionable, the rating would be enough for me to stay away from the toy (and luckily, it's so hard to find now I won't be tempted). But is it true? Is Mr. Squiggles going to rain down the ill health on your little ones along with the total adorableness this holiday season? Will the pets be recalled?
According to Cepia LLC, manufacturer of Mr. Squiggles and his hamster brethren, the furry robot is "absolutely safe and has passed the most rigorous testing in the toy industry for consumer health and safety." Zhu Zhu Pets have undergone "rigorous testing" and have been determined to be "well within U.S. government standards and these results have been certified by the world's leading independent testing organizations."
Cepia LLC CEO Russ Hornsby says he's working with GoodGuide to figure out the disconnect. "We are contacting the Good Guide people at this moment to share with them all of our Mr. Squiggles and Zhu Zhu Pet testing data so we can get to the bottom of how their report was founded," Hornsby states in his press release. A 35-year toy industry veteran and "a father of children myself," he says, he'd never let a contaminated toy hit the shelves.
Walmart, one of the stores that was accused of under-ordering, had helped fuel rumors of a recall when some stores pulled Zhu Zhu Pets off their shelves. Simple miscommunication, Walmart PR representative Melissa O'Brien told media outlets, as stores were supposed to hold all inventory in anticipation of a big sale beginning December 6: "They absolutely have not been recalled. In a handful of stores, a few hamsters were placed on shelves too early, and therefore their sale was already blocked until this Sunday."
And there are more uncertainties, too, based on the types of contaminants GoodGuide says it has found. Antimony has only recently been formally regulated by the CPSIA, although the toy industry has long had a non-enforceable, voluntary limit of 60 parts per million of soluble antimony in paints and surfaces; there is no total antimony standard. And tin, which is used as a stabilizer in PVC plastic, is not included in CPSIA standards, even though it's banned from children's toys by the European Union. There is also a question whether XRF guns, the tool used by GoodGuide to test for contaminants, can distinguish between organotin and the inorganic tins, which are generally considered safe; Jennifer Taggart, an XRF expert, writes in her blog that the XRF gun cannot distinguish between soluble and total antimony: "As much as I love my XRF analyzer, it just can't tell you soluble. At all. It only tells you total – total lead, total antimony, total mercury, etc." A third substance, bromine, was said to be present at low (not generally considered hazardous) levels.
So even if GoodGuide's test results did indeed detect these heavy metals, it's uncertain whether the substances detected were allowable (insoluble, or unleachable, antimony; inorganic tin). Given the company's strenuous and immediate PR response, I'm guessing it's certain the toys are (barely or otherwise) on the right side of official contaminant limits. The question is, then: do you trust the CPSIA?
I certainly don't see the point in making that leap; but my little boys are far more interested in Nerf guns and Bakugan Brawlers than they are furry hamsters that run around little hamster houses all on their own.
What's a parent to do with Zhu Zhu Pets recall rumors?