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Toy Killers



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Chuchi and M.A.R.S. are themselves a thoroughly modern couple — she sports daisy dukes and high-tops; he loves gadgets — and they've decided to get tested too.

Lead tested, that is.

They are, perhaps, an unlikely couple. Chuchi's part of the B-list dolly clique "Emo Girls, Emotional Charged Teenagers." According to her Emo Girl biography, she loves karaoke and clubbing, wants to be a doctor or a rock star, and her favorite food is chocolate. M.A.R.S. — short for Motorized Attack Robo Sqaud — runs with a fierce gang of intergalactic robot warriors and has a saw blade for a hand.

Since making the long journey from a factory in China to the racks of a Richmond dollar store, the carefree couple has fallen under suspicion. People have become concerned that her rosy cheeks might be too rosy, his red robot-shell a signal of danger instead of defiance. They might contain lead and that could end up making a child, slobbering with enthusiasm, very sick indeed.

After a rash of recalls cleared toy-store shelves, experts recommended home lead-test kits. Now industrial labs are getting in on the act, offering a deeper look into potentially hazardous toys. But there's a catch: Testing requires the toys' destruction, from plastic limb to plastic limb.

Not unlike the Maymont bears, who had to die before the city could collect the brain-tissue samples that proved they were rabies-free, Chuchi and M.A.R.S. have no inkling of how high the cost of proving their innocence will be. Although he will emerge clean and she will betray only trace amounts of the poisonous element in her prized sneakers, neither will leave the lab in one piece.

On an overcast morning last week, the pair makes their way to the barbed-wire-bordered facility of Schneider Laboratories Inc. in the Fan. City buses hiss and grunt in the lot next door, but Chuchi's grin perseveres. M.A.R.S. maintains focus through his green light-up visor.

For the last 20 years, Schneider has specialized in air, water and soil analysis for businesses and governments. The lab tests for heavy metals in soil samples, makes sure apartments with lead paint or asbestos are safe to re-enter after a renovation and even worked for the federal government on samples taken from ground zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This toy gig is new and represents only a tiny percentage of the business, lab director Matt Asbury says. Last year the lab received about 20 requests for toy testing. This year's lead scares have ratcheted that number up to 200. The lab launched an advertising blitz last month on Broad Street with billboards enticing parents and grandparents to reassure themselves year-round by having suspect toys tested for $25.

The two federal agencies responsible for toy safety disagree on how much lead is safe. The Centers for Disease Control says a toy with any lead at all should be taken away, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission says anything below 0.06 percent is OK — but, as Asbury says, "still nothing I'd want to be sucking on."

Style rounded up Chuchi and M.A.R.S. from a local dollar store, selecting them at random. When Chuchi and M.A.R.S. make their way to the lab, a swirl of technicians in white lab coats greet the couple in a cramped intake room. Things go smoothly with the paperwork. A deceptive calm falls while they sprawl on a chrome-topped lab table, arm in claw, waiting.

It's the last quiet moment they will share.

A lab technician wearing a white plastic apron snatches up Chuchi and decapitates her. She grabs a chunk of face with a wire cutter and dismantles the pouty lips, button nose and long-lashed left eye. Segments of her elegant arm and hot-pink high-tops give in to the snips and fall into a beaker. Next, the technician mercilessly cracks off M.A.R.S.' left arm and slices off pieces. A red scrap of armor hits the wall.

The indignity has just begun.

Their tormentors drown Chuchi's and M.A.R.S.'s harvested bits in nitric acid and heat the mixture until the plastic pieces bloat like neglected cereal gorged with milk, a process known as digestion. The beakers fill with a harsh orange smoke that curls off into the lab. The acid reduces their once-welcoming arms to separate atoms, leaching any lead from the plastic that might anchor it.

The toys' next horror comes in the form of a 1,500-degree centigrade flame. A tube slurps up the toy juice made from Chuchi's digested sneakers and spritzes it through the fire. Separated and dismembered, crushed and digested, Chuchi's essential building blocks dance in the flame, which changes from a pale purplish-blue to a curtain of red, registering trace quantities of lead.

Never hide the good stuff in your shoes.

M.A.R.S. is next. The straw dips into his beaker and pulls up a thin stream of digested robot from the bicep of his saw-arm. Inside the straw his elements mingle like confetti. Shot out of the tube at the consistency of hairspray mist, his atoms absorb the flame's light. Inside the gray casing flanking the flame, a receptor registers the new color in the fire, a rich pumpkin orange, and something miraculous happens.

Lead absorbs some of the light and emits the rest in a unique pattern. If lead atoms had been in the M.A.R.S. toy juice, the light from the fire would be missing the parts of the spectrum absorbed by the lead.

M.A.R.S. sacrificed his arm, his shot at life under the Christmas tree and future intergalactic battles, but he is free. Lead-free.

Mission accomplished. If the toys had come from a loving home, mom and dad could yank the rest of Chuchi's gang and quietly replace M.A.R.S.

Digested and dejected, the couple will be poured into a drum with the rest of the lab's waste and shipped off to a landfill specializing in hazardous materials, which in the end may not be that bad. After all, most lead landfills are in Florida. S

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