Pediatric Lead Levels in Toys and Ethics of Care


In response to the discovery of high levels of lead in an alarming number of toys, the giant toymakers and distributors have appropriately established a recall notice complete with customer service phone numbers and suspect product serial number lists. Ostensibly, the reason for this action is care and concern, but – and perhaps somewhat cynically – exoneration is also in the equation. No one wishes to be found responsible; but eventually someone will likely be accused for the elevated lead levels in children’s toys. This is how we show care – at least in the public eye – by pointing a finger the other way.

An ethics of care is so basic, and yet so profound. As one set of authors put it, this fundamental concept "is not so much ethical theory as a cluster of ways of looking at ethics which put an attitude of caring for others at the centre, and seeks to avoid reliance on abstract ethical principles."1 Simply stated, people know when they have been cared for; people don’t need an explanation, the act of care stands by itself. Furthermore, as Beauchamp and Childress note, the ethics of care is a "family of moral reflections . . . [that places] an emphasis on traits valued in intimate personal relationships, such as sympathy, compassion, fidelity, discernment, and love."2 An ethics of care only requires a giver, a receiver, and the reception of care as a gift to function properly.

The toy industry has announced its method of dealing with the burgeoning amount of lead levels in the paint. They plan to be increasingly vigilant on behalf of the American consumer. This vigilance, however, will come at a hefty price, passing along a staggering 10% markup for something they should already have been doing. Consumers might be willing to shoulder this increased cost with the safety of the nation’s children at stake. Interestingly, however, the price increases likely will not take effect until after the new year—well after the primary toy-buying season is long gone. The reason for this delay: the holiday toy inventory (with its potential lead contamination) is already in-stock (AP, Anne D’Innocenzio, September 14, 2007). So, one must wonder whether product safety ranks as high for manufacturers as product sales.

This conflict of interests –between commerce and safety—is notable for its stark juxtaposition against an ethics of care. Paul Ramsey describes "the word ‘care’ (or ‘respect’ for human life) . . . as a strong, ethical expression, the source of particular moral obligations and our court of final appeal for deciding the features of actions and practices that make what we do right or wrong."3

Following Ramsey’s lead, I suggest the following triad as a method of ethical analysis: engage, educate, and effectuate. As we engage, we familiarize ourselves with the nuances of the situation; we are able to understand the impact of how a situation affects our daily lives. As we educate, we equip ourselves and those within our influence on how to deal with an issue, as well as to understand its long-term ramifications. This piece, albeit laborious, is critical for establishing the complexity and depth of a particular issue; adequate information and education are the absolute backbone of informed action. As we effectuate, we empower ourselves and those in our sphere of influence to grapple with the issue and to mold it into something that is usable and effective in and for our daily lives. The tools used and the pathways followed may lack harmony at times, but accompanied with an essential flexibility there is some ‘glue’ that binds the effort and keeps it fresh.

As we buy toys for our tots, we demonstrate an ethics of care when we carefully select our purchases. At times, an expression of our care may mean purchasing home-based lead-testing kits in order to ensure safety of the toys. There is nothing inherently wrong with toys and other appropriate items selected in this manner, but our children need guidance and protection in this arena. Perhaps an ethics of care demands that we examine our motivations and desires and attain to a more complete and less self-serving parental attitude. Perhaps, this is an appropriate time for us to reconsider our own priorities. Perhaps the lead problem liberates us from seeing the purchase of a toy as a "quick fix" in a busy holiday season. Toys are fine, but an ethics of care would underscore the importance of engagement, education, and effectuation in making choices about toys. In the end, we may find that giving children our care-ful time and attention may be more important than giving them yet another toy. 



1) Kuhse, Helga and Peter Singer (ed.) Bioethics, An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd, 1999. p. 5.

2) Beauchamp, Tom, and James Childress. Principles of Biomedical Ethics. Oxford: University Press, 2001. p. 369.

3) Paul Ramsey “The Nature of Medical Ethics”. Ethics in Medicine. Reiser, S., Dyck, A., Curran, W. (ed.,). Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977. p. 124.


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