Options for prevention and detection
Yes, it happened again. According to a recent Associated Press story, drinking glasses produced in China, featuring comic and superhero characters, have been discovered to contain extremely high levels of lead. Excessive amounts of cadmium were revealed in the glasses as well.
This has been a repeated and particularly troubling topic, especially because many of these products are marketed to children. It’s clear that the methods being employed to combat this problem have been unsuccessful. So what are some options?
“This is a systemic problem and the root cause for most of it belongs to the importers, not the manufacturers,” says Stan Salot, president of the ECC Corp. (ECCC) and co-author of the IECQ HSPM QC 080000 standard that certifies manufacturer compliance to hazardous substance process management.
“As an international third-party certification program, QC 080000 requires a self-assessment by the manufacturer to determine what its hazardous substance processes are,” says Salot. “Based on this knowledge, the manufacturer sets about putting the process and testing controls and procedures in place to ensure that its products are manufactured in accordance with buyer specification as well as applicable regulations.”
The first step in ensuring prevention is a willingness on the part of U.S. importers to demand compliance from their partners overseas. Cost is a key factor in these relationships from the outset, but U.S. importers must understand the true cost of poor quality if and when these consumer products are found to be defective. These risks cannot be simply assigned in terms of lost sales, either—the costs of bad public relations, lost customers, and potential fines and lawsuits are often incalculable.
“Companies go to foreign countries to have their products manufactured for many reasons, the main one being lower cost,” agrees Salot. “One of the primary ways this is possible is that there are fewer, in some cases no, regulatory control over the materials and/or methods used to produce the products.”
This may be changing, however. A recent Quality Digest Daily article reports that China has notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) of prospective legislative changes to that nation’s handling of hazardous substances in consumer products. It’s a small step that specifically addresses only electronics, but it is an acknowledgement that Chinese leaders recognize the problem and are addressing it. China’s massive economic expansion has been fueled by consumer product exports, and it’s clear that the nation’s government will do what it takes to ensure the continuance of that growth.
OK, but let’s say that an importer does all its due diligence in terms of certification of its overseas manufacturing partners, but it still wants to inspect products for levels of hazardous substances. What kind of testing equipment is available to ensure compliance?
X-ray fluorescence (XRF) testing is one method. “XRF uses X-ray energy to determine what elements or metals an object contains and how much of those elements or metals are present,” explains Kim Russell, business development representative for Olympus Innov-X Systems, a manufacturer of testing and inspection equipment. In comparison with laboratory inspection methods, XRF testing is easier, faster, and less expensive—and nondestructive, too.
“Handheld XRF units incorporate a miniature X-ray tube, detector, and filters along with full data processing and presentation capabilities,” says Russell. “The analyzer window is placed on the object and the trigger is pressed to deliver enough energy to eject electrons of the inner atomic orbitals out of their resting place. When electrons from the outer orbitals replace the ejected inner orbital electrons, they give off energies that essentially are signatures of the elements or metals in the object. For instance, if lead is in an object, it will show up at 10.55 and 12.61 keV, the signature energy of lead. The intensity of the signal at the signature energy determines how much of the element or metal is contained in the object.”
XRF testing allows importers to spot-check finished products. Even better, inspection tools such as these can also be used further upstream, at the site of production, to confirm that products and components are within allowable ranges for toxic heavy metals—not only lead and cadmium, but mercury, chromium, and bromine, too. In this way, products that don’t meet specifications can be rejected and destroyed before they’re even loaded for export. Having this safety valve in place can also reduce the amount of product that slips through the cracks and gets into the hands of consumers, most likely via Internet marketers.
Rejecting large batches of products isn’t an ideal solution, of course. Training, certification, and compliance to a recognized standard such as QC 080000 is still the best and cheapest fix possible, but in light of ongoing problems of this nature, several roads to improvement are certainly better than none. Action always trumps inaction, and self-discovery of quality issues (and the attendant, immediate steps to eliminate bad product) will always prove more salutary to exporters, importers, and consumers than whistle-blowing from third parties such as regulatory commissions or media watchdogs.