The 2008 Michener Award finalists talk about their award winning stories and the people who helped make them happen – Michener Awards Ceremony, June 10, 2009
Scientific tests conducted by the Toronto Star resulted in a series of stories on the high level of lead in toys being sold in Canada. This led to the largest series of product recalls in Canadian history after federal officials confirmed the Star’s findings. The federal government vowed swift action (announced in the fall Throne Speech) to toughen toy safety laws to protect consumers and their children.
Congratulations to the other nominees.
I’m honoured to be in your presence. Thank you very much (your Excellencies) for having us. It’s very cool to be here.
This was easily my most dangerous assignment. I mean, the story proposal seemed harmless. Could we find a way to test a wide range of children’s products for lead? And if so, what would we find?
Weeks after it was published and done I was in a doctor’s office dealing with it still.
At the start of the reporting, I set about town, buying everything from dollar store loot bag filler to high-end brand name toys from big chain toy stores.
Next I had to test the stuff for lead, which, if you don’t know, is a cheap, toxic metal often used by manufacturers to cut costs. It is especially dangerous to young children who could suffer serious harm if they swallow or suck on the lead-tainted toy.
I had heard about this fancy machine made by a U.S. company. It was compact, easy to use and relied on technology I did not understand to test the surface of a toy for lead. It also cost $40,000. I got the company to loan it to the Star for a few weeks.
The company rep came to our newsroom to set it up, he tested a couple items to demonstrate how to use it, then casually mentioned that the machine emits a low level of radiation, but if you keep the lid of the testing station closed you should be fine, he said. Then he handed me a freaking Geiger counter. And left.
That afternoon my editor Kevin Donovan saw me using the machine from as great a distance as possible, my arms stretched, my fingertips barely able to reach the controls.
During one of the tests, I waved the Geiger around the machine and it beeped with increasing frequency. I became nearly hysterical.
I told Kevin that I was really nervous because as I wanted to start a family in the near future I was concerned that this story was going to fry my testicles.
A born problem solver, he went down to the dentist who rents space in our building and got one of those heavy bibs you wear when you get a mouth x-ray.
So for the next couple weeks I spent my time in the newsroom putting toys in and out of a space-age machine while wearing a blue bib. We found some pretty shocking stuff:
A high level of lead in the mouthguard part of a dollar store pacifier – a baby pacifier. We found there is no federal limit on lead in pacifiers.
Lead in a jewelry making kit that said right on the package “lead free.” So much lead in a penny-sized dollar store scrapbook charm that swallowing it could have meant death for a child.
And lead in the brown belt of a stuffed teddy bear dressed as an RCMP officer. I bought this overpriced toy at Pearson airport. This toy and others from the same line were recalled after our story. It was the largest recall in Canadian history.
We also found a flawed inspection and recall system that was not catching dangerous products.
Shortly after the recalls, the federal government announced plans to beef up its consumer product safety law.
Meanwhile, weeks after our original report, I built up the nerve to get tested myself. It was an indignity, the details of which I will spare you. But the doctor said I was fine.
Thank you very much.
Michener Awards Ceremony
June 10, 2009