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Are imports from China safe?

Thomas the Tank Engine toy trains. “High School Musical” charm bracelets. Pet food, baby bibs, toothpaste, even eye shadow — all recalled for serious safety dangers, and all manufactured in China. If it seems like you’re hearing about these recalls all the time these days, there’s good reason.

Lately, a slew of Chinese imports have either been recalled or flat out refused by U.S. inspectors, and the problem is growing. That’s partly because we’re importing more and more from China. Last year, 40 percent of all goods imported to the U.S. came from China — about $246 billion worth. And since 1994, imports from China have increased by about 300 percent, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC.

But those huge numbers don’t explain the high number of “bad” products that China’s shipping our way. Take a look at the FDA’s list of goods that were turned away at the dock and you just may pass on lunch. In April of this year alone, 270 products from China were refused, many of them listed as “filthy,” “unsafe,” containing traces of veterinary drugs or tainted with bacteria. In fact, China consistently tops this appalling list. (See for yourself at www.fda.gov/ora/oasis/4/ora_oasis_cntry_lst.html.)

But U.S. government officials have a new plan to do something about it. The CPSC has just announced its “2007 China Program Plan,” a pledge between Chinese and U.S. officials to seriously step up oversight, testing and communication to get those numbers down, and the safety of your family up.

“The increasing number of recalls of imported consumer products manufactured in China is of serious concern,” reads the plan. “On average, about two-thirds of all U.S. product recalls are of imported products, and the large majority of those products are manufactured in China.” Here’s the link to that report: www.cpsc.gov/BUSINFO/intl/china07.pdf.

What should you do?

The CPSC advises: If you think a toy is suspicious, take it away from your child immediately. You can test for lead yourself by using one of the inexpensive lead testing kits on the market, which feature a chemically treated swab (about $7.50 for two on www.amazon.com).

Check for recalls at www.cpsc.gov and sign up to receive email alerts. Always, always keep an eye out for possible choking hazards.

Symptoms of lead exposure can include loss of appetite, sluggishness and vomiting. A simple blood test for lead can be done on children as young as 6 months. Contact your pediatrician if you are concerned.

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