Misguided Green Priorities

A story in today’s Washington Post highlights the fact that with all the news about Chinese toy recalls, regulators are ignoring other, more serious risks. This is a real problem, but it is much larger than the recent problems with China. Environmental health and safety activists focus on politically selected risks — leading everyone else to ignore the more serious ones in many areas. Lately, conservatives have joined in to some extent because they don’t like communist China. I share their disdain for communism, but I don’t see any reason to jump on the green bandwagon or bash free trade.

Concern about lead paint in toys is a very big story because the greens have demonized lead exposure at any level. In reality, lead is only an issue when there is regular exposure to relatively high levels. These days lead problems are largely related to children eating peeling lead paint found in older homes. In severe cases, children can get lead poisoning. In less severe cases, lead exposure might impact IQ. Such effects may be temporary, but certainly should be avoided.

Intact lead paint on toys is most likely a very low risk. “A child really has to be able to bite off, or pick off and eat, pieces of paint to be significantly exposed,” noted Dr. Micheal Shannon a pediatrician and toxicologist with the Children’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School in a Reuters news story. Can you imagine a child chewing long and hard enough to get a signficant amount of paint off a toy car? It would even be difficult to get much off a wooden toy, and he would have to do so regularly to suffer effects.

Removal of these products from the market is precautionary rather than based on any actual or even likely threats. Yet regulators and the rest of us have been trained to panic whenever one of the greens’ demonized substances makes the news. Hence, as fear about lead paint on toys escalates, other more serious risks receive less attention from both government and parents.

Unfortunately, the pitfall of following green priorities applies on many levels. It explains why much of federal regulation — particularly from the Environmental Protection Agency — focuses on inconsequential risks. As a result, we pay high costs for regulations that provide few benefits, and we have fewer resources to meet much higher priority needs.