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Shanghai

Love hurts

Safety for the little ones: before toys and stuffed animals end up in children’s rooms, Wenjun Chen gets her hands on them first. The story of a long-suffering toy rabbit.

 

 leg 6  ■  Yonezawa ➡ Shanghai  ■  2,250 Km  ■  Arrival 14.11.2015, 10:00 a.m.  ■  travel time 88 hrs  ■  17°C  ■  total distance 42,500 KM

A

plush white bunny: soft, cuddly, created to be loved. It can comfort children when they’re sad, or be held in their arms for a really big hug. Just like thousands of other stuffed animals produced in China every day and sent around the world in large containers, this bunny could become the best friend of a little boy or girl in Europe or North America.

Right now, however, the bunny is having its ears pulled sharply on the first floor of a laboratory building on the outskirts of Shanghai. The rabbit’s ears, approximately 8 centimeters long, are clamped in a vice, and Wenjun Chen, 24, is tugging on them—for ten seconds, with almost twenty pounds (nine kilograms) of weight as confirmed by the spring scale. Then Chen nods in approval. She was checking to see if one of the ears might come off from the heavy strain. But the seams held and the toy rabbit looks no worse for the wear. In an Excel spreadsheet, Chen meticulously records the results. Specifically, this means that when a child later pulls on the bunny’s ear, she or he won’t be able to detach it under normal circumstances.

 

A Fiery Exit

A Fiery Exit

Flammability is the very last thing to be tested. Afterwards, the stuffed rabbit is ready to be thrown away.

 

 

Wenjun Chen's workplace looks like a toy store’s shop window. It’s a jumble of stuffed animals, rocking horses, a play grocery store, garishly colored dolls and packages of building blocks on long shelves. Very special rules apply to all these items: those who wish to sell these toys must ensure that they pose no danger. This means that they must be completely harmless, both physically and chemically. After all, these toys will end up in children’s rooms, will be put in mouths or held to cheeks, they’ll be tugged on and chewed. “Physically harmless,” for example, means that not one single part—such as the bunny’s ears—that a toddler could swallow and choke on will detach. As for the chemical composition, lawmakers in the majority of countries have set very strict limits: dangerous heavy metals, cancer-causing agents such as PAKs or phthalates—softening agents used in plastic toys—are not allowed at all in these items, or only in extremely small quantities.

 

THE WORLD´S WORKBENCH

Wenjun Chen tests all of these things. A test engineer, she works in the TÜV SÜD laboratory in Shanghai, China, a metropolis that is one of the world’s largest commercial hubs. From here almost everything is exported to the world—all sorts of toys, for example. And some of them pass over Wenjun Chen’s desk, day after day. She began working for TÜV SÜD a year and a half ago, directly after graduating from college. The responsibility of her job, doing something meaningful and protecting children from potential dangers, is how her employers won her over.

But right now the stuffed bunny is up next. Wenjun Chen examines it in accordance with EN 71-1:2014, an international standard for “toy safety” that is mandatory for exports into the European Union. Every manufacturer or distributor bringing such a product to market in an EU country must prove that it fulfills the requirements of this toy standard.

Because safety is so important for toys, Wenjun Chen takes the utmost care conducting the prescribed tests—even if it sometimes seems silly for a particular product. And so Wenjun Chen picks up the bunny, raises it to a height of 85 centimeters next to a measuring tape mounted on the wall and lets it fall—over and over again. Unsurprisingly, the stuffed animal survives the test unscathed.

After the paws, glass eyes and little stumpy tail have all been tested to see if an individual part detaches under standardized strain, Wenjun Chen picks up a pair of scissors. Now she’s getting down to the nitty-gritty! Below the bunny’s head, the TÜV SÜD inspector cuts a hole in the fur. White stuffing billows out. Wenjun Chen rubs several of the small balls in her hand, places them on a platter in front of her and moves them about with tweezers, scrutinizing them. Later, she’ll write in her spreadsheet that the visual inspection of the stuffing material revealed no impurities and no admixtures of substandard materials.

Only the chemical tests can show whether the fur and stuffing are truly harmless. To accomplish this, Wenjun Chen slices and dices the bunny some more, cutting off small parts at various spots and packaging them up in small, precisely labeled sample bags. They’re taken to a chemical laboratory where the contents will be subject to a detailed analysis. The data will later be integrated into the inspection report.

 

Rabbit flambé

Wenjun Chen testing toys

 

 

Finally, Wenjun Chen approaches the final examination: the flammability test. Toys are subject to especially strict regulations for this as well. If a product catches fire, the flames may only spread slowly. The toy rabbit should not immediately burst into flames. Wenjun Chen dons a respirator mask and places the bunny on a metal skewer beneath a smoke extractor. At the push of a button, a gas flame ignites directly below the bunny, and she pushes the start button on her stopwatch. The plush bunny begins to smolder very slowly, until a first upward lick of flames spreads across a few centimeters and tinges the white fur a sooty black. Wenjun Chen looks at her stopwatch, grabs a spray bottle of water and extinguishes the burning bunny with a few jets of mist. The stuffed animal has passed this test, too.

In the inspection report for the manufacturer, Wenjun Chen will later certify that the bunny fulfills all the requirements for export into Europe. She’ll test the sample periodically being drawn from the ongoing production by the inspectors to monitor whether the manufacturer is still producing the bunnies in exactly the same way as the sample she has just examined.

The toy bunny from the laboratory, however, has reached the end of its journey. It has served its purpose—and lands right in the garbage can.