Vietnam recalls cancer-causing Chinese fruit-head dolls

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Most toys in the domestic market are smuggled from China via land borders, inspectors have found

A Chinese fruit-head doll displayed at a shop in Hanoi. Vietnam has recalled the toy after finding it contains excessive amounts of phthalates, a plasticizer that causes cancer and deformities in unborn babies and infertility in men. Photo by Thai Uyen

Vietnam has ordered the recall of Chinese "fruit-head dolls" after tests found they contain a dangerous chemical that is banned in Europe and the US.

Tran Van Vinh, deputy director of the Directorate for Standards, Metrology and Quality (STAMEQ), said his agency has instructed local agencies to inspect toy shops, seize the dolls and fine sellers for dealing in unlabelled products without clear origin.

"Parents should check the product origin when buying toys for their children. Especially, avoid buying cheap products smuggled from China," he said.

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On January 1, STAMEQ said it had found phthalates, a plasticizer which can cause cancer and deformities in fetuses and infertility in men, in all samples collected randomly from markets in Hanoi.

Tran Quoc Tuan, STAMEQ director, said they found phthalates concentration exceeding levels deemed safe under the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) protocol a European Union standard that addresses the production and use of chemical substances and their potential impacts on both human health and the environment.

Meanwhile, Chinese fruit-head dolls are being sold widely around Hanoi.

A toy shop owner on Luong Van Can Street said these dolls were first sold more than two years ago, featuring the characters of a popular television cartoon being broadcast at that time.

"They sold like hot cakes, especially during holidays. We still sell the doll these days but not many people have been buying it recently," he said.

These dolls are also available online, advertised as dolls that can sing and walk and sold for VND200,000-220,000 (US$9.5-10.5).

The brightly colored dolls have heads shaped like strawberries, apples, watermelons, tomatoes, and black currants, and are also sold at many shops in Ho Chi Minh City markets for VND125,000-175,000 ($6-8.30) apiece.

A salesperson at Bin Bo, a shop in Binh Tan District, said the toy is a favorite among children of around three years old since they do not only look pretty but also play music when pressed.

They have no labels with the importers' names or mandatory quality stamps.

The shop owner said she is not aware of the health hazard posed by the toys.

"We bought the dolls from a dealer at a wholesale market and have been selling them for a week. If we receive official warnings, we will stop selling them and start recalling them."

Tran Minh Dung, Ministry of Science and Technology chief inspector, said his agency had conducted a three-month (August-October) inspection of toys last year.

"We found 90 percent of toys in the markets are Chinese products imported into Vietnam in small amounts through land borders in order to escape detection." 

Most Chinese toys either have no labels or have Vietnamese labels, he said.

Dung said inspectors have fined 672 shops, almost 40 percent of the inspected shops, for selling products without labels and confiscated more than 19,590 items.

Last month, authorities in the US state of Massachusetts seized many of these dolls from a shop and tests found them containing phthalates.

BBC quoted Ian Gilmore, an official, as saying the dolls kept resurfacing at street markets and discount shops despite the ban, especially during Christmas since they "represent quite an attractive gift."

Fruit-head doll is the third Chinese product found to contain the carcinogen phthalates. Last year, the Vietnamese Ministry of Science and Technology had ordered the confiscation of two other kinds of Chinese toys a ride-on reindeer and a battery-operated car that contained excessive amounts of the chemical.

The Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported recently that the reindeer is back on shelves at shops in HCM's outlying districts, carrying made-in-Vietnam labels, but without any information about its producers.

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