It's not all fun and games: Toys still come with risks

Parents should always be careful when providing their children with toys, but with the Christmas season right around the corner, those who plan on gifting the little ones in their lives with the latest toys need to be aware of the risks.

And there are risks.

Despite consumer protection laws, companies continue to produce and import toys that are potentially hazardous for children, putting them at risk for injury—even death.

For example, in June a judge ordered four California-based companies to stop importing, selling and distributing children’s toys in response to allegations that the companies were operating in violation of federal consumer protection laws, knowingly importing toys that contained illegal levels of lead, phthalates, choking hazards and other harmful substances. Just last month, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced McDonald’s was recalling 2.3 million Hello Kitty whistles given away in Happy Meals because portions of the toy could detach and create a choking hazard.

These examples illustrate that manufacturers, in some cases, recall their products when it becomes clear that there are safety hazards associated with a particular toy. Similarly, the court system can halt the flow of production of unsafe toys by enforcing consumer protection laws, such as the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA).

“Mandatory toy standards, lower lead and phthalate limits, independent third party testing, and increased port inspections stop more dangerous toys than ever before from reaching toy shelves,” stated Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and general counsel at Consumer Federation of America (CFA).

Yet, many toys that present potential hazards to children make it onto store shelves and into homes across the country. With the start of the holiday season, more and more toys will be purchased this time of year, but not all of them may be safe. The recall of more than 11 million toys in 2014 demonstrates the need for constant vigilance on behalf of the government agencies and the public to ensure that unsafe products do not make it into thousands of American homes.


The Consumer Federation of America partnered with the U.S. Public Interest Group to release the 29th Annual Survey of Toy Safety, “Trouble in Toyland” this week to help consumers identify potentially harmful products. The goal is to help consumers make informed decisions about toys and the associated dangers. 

Among the toys surveyed this year, the report found numerous choking hazards, as well as toys with concentrations of toxins exceeding federal standards. 

“Parents should avoid shopping at stores that have not adopted a publicly available corporate policy on toxics in their products, such as Walgreens,” said Sujatha Jahagirdar, U.S. PIRG Public Health Campaign Director. “Without such a policy, Walgreens does not play an active role in ensuring the safety of the products it sells. Instead, Walgreens leaves it up to manufacturers and suppliers to ensure the safety of products.”

Standards for toy safety are enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Safety standards include limits on toxics in children’s products, size requirements for toys for small children, warning labels about choking hazards, measures to keep magnets and batteries inaccessible, and noise limits.

Some of the most common dangers found in the study were:

  • Lead. Childhood exposure to even low levels of lead can undermine development, which in turn can damage academic achievements and attentiveness. Unsafe levels of lead were found in a set of play sheriff and police badges.
  • Chromium. Skin contact with chromium can cause severe allergic reactions, which can include anything from skin redness and irritation, to swelling, to ulcers. Chromium compounds are also carcinogenic, and this year, lab tests revealed that a tambourine marketed to children ages two and older contained chromium levels at nearly 10 times the legal limit.
  • Phthalates. Exposure to phthalates at crucial developmental stages can harm or hinder the development of the male reproductive system, and can be linked to the early onset of puberty. Lab tests confirmed that several toys in the study contained high levels of banned phthalates, including a rubber duck, plastic-covered hairclips, and a Dora the Explorer backpack.
  • Small parts and pieces. Small parts and pieces can block a child’s airway and become a choke hazard. For children, especially under the age of three, this can be a potentially deadly hazard. Shoppers in the study purchased a set of foam blocks marketed toward children two and up that contained multiple small parts that fit into a choke test cylinder. In addition, multiple toys studied contained near-small parts, which are pieces that nearly fit into a choke tube, and could be potential choking hazards.
  • Small balls less than 1.75 inches in diameter. These balls can be a hazard for children three years old and younger. Researchers found small balls that were not labeled with appropriate choke hazard warnings, and several small, rounded toys, such as toy food, could present the same choke hazard as small balls, but are not labeled as hazardous.
  • Balloons. Balloons can be easily inhaled while attempting to inflate, and potentially can become stuck in a child’s throat. According to the survey, balloons are responsible for more choking deaths among children than any other toy or children’s product. But over the past several years, researchers continue to find balloons on store shelves marketed toward children under the age of eight.
  • Magnets. The study warns that when two or more powerful magnets are swallowed, they can have fatal health consequences as their attractive forces draw them together inside the body. This could potentially perforate the intestinal walls. Shoppers in the study purchased small, high-powered magnets, despite the fact that these products were recalled by the CPSC.
  • Batteries. If batteries are ingested, chemical reactions can burn through the esophagus and blood vessels, causing fatal internal bleeding. Shoppers in the study found a toy whale that contained batteries that are accessible to small children and are almost small enough to constitute a choke hazard. The toy, while still on the shelves in America, has been recalled in Australia because small children can easily remove the batteries.
  • Excessive noise. Exposure to excessive noise can lead to hearing loss, which is especially problematic for young children, as the loss of hearing at a young age has ramifications for speech development. In this year’s study, shoppers found toys that are very loud, though not necessarily in violation of federal limits.

“Parents and all consumers should have more confidence in the products they may own or consider purchasing but should also continue to carefully research and select the safest and most appropriate gifts for the children on their gift lists,” Jahagirdar said. “Manufacturers should ensure they comply with the law and continued CPSC enforcement and adequate funding is necessary to further protect our nation’s children.”

Posted 11:00 AM

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