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One and a half million Thomas trains. Close to a million Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer toys. 250,000 Sponge Bob Square Pants… What is going on with toys these days? From Barbie to Curious George, 2007 is the Year of the Recall. And with the holidays coming up fast, many parents are throwing up their hands as they look at their gift lists.
First the bad news: despite what you may have heard, no government agency tests toys before they hit U.S. shelves. There is an agency, The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), set up to keep consumers safe, but they have a measly fifteen full-time inspectors to check millions of toys at hundreds of ports of entry.
“The Consumer Product Safety Commission is a little agency with a big job it simply can not do,” says Ed Mierzwinski, Consumer Program Director for the Federation of State Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), a network of researchers and public interest advocates.
The CPSC is our government’s smallest safety agency, but it’s responsible for 15,000 products, from chain saws, to kitchen appliances, to escalators. Started in 1974, its current budget, $63 million, is less than half of what its initial budget ($34 million) would be if it were simply adjusted for inflation ($140 million). And its staff has been whittled down by almost two thirds from its peak in 1980, Mierzwinski says.
Now the good news: there are three bills being batted about on Capital Hill right now, with the intent of making toys safer. The brawniest is the PIRG-backed SAFE Consumer Product Act (HR 3691) which would ban lead completely except in trace amounts, not just in paint but anywhere else in a product, to 40 parts per million—the level recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The bill would also require all toy companies to guarantee that their products have been subject to independent third party testing. Two other bills, the CSPC Reform Act (S 2045) and the Consumer Product Safety Modernization Act (HR 4040) are good first steps, but more watered down options.
With all the red tape in Washington, don’t expect any of these bills to get passed in time to help families this holiday season. That said, it’s important to try and tune out all the scary news stories, and realize that most toys on the shelf are safe. Here are a few important things to keep in mind when you’re shopping this year:
Buy U.S. made toys whenever possible. While buying domestic is by no means a guarantee that a toy is safe, it does make it less likely that the toy has lead paint. “There’s no study that I’m aware of that proves that buying American is a panacea,” Ed Mierzwinski says. Still, according to Nancy Cowles, Director of the nonprofit Kids in Danger, “Lead paint is simply not available in this country”, so at least when it comes to that one factor, U.S. made toys are a safer bet, she says.
Avoid inexpensive jewelry and play cosmetics. All those pint-sized lipsticks and pressed powders may look cute, but many of them are full of dangerous chemicals. “Read the labels of all play cosmetics and avoid products with xylene, toluene, or dibutyl” U.S. PIRG advises. And when it comes to inexpensive jewelry, just say no. More than 150 million pieces of cheap jewelry were recalled in 2004 alone. And at least one child has died from swallowing a tiny charm, full of lead. “I would never buy cheap jewelry,” Mierzwinski says, “Cheap heavy jewelry is asking for lead.”
Don’t ignore a product’s age guidelines. “Choking is actually the biggest hazard for toys,” Nancy Cowles says, “And the age grading for toys is really for safety. Even if your child is advanced for his age, if a toy has parts that can easily break off, it could be dangerous for a young child.”
Consider a lead testing kit. Children exposed to lead can suffer lowered IQ, delayed mental and physical development, and even death. Lead affects almost every organ in the body, especially the central nervous system, and is particularly toxic to the brains of young children. Experts are mixed on the effectiveness of lead testing kits. But while the kits can’t tell a parent whether a toy contains internal parts that are lead-laden, they can serve as a good preliminary screening tool, Mierzwinski says. Consumer Reports recently did a report on the effectiveness of lead testing kits and they are not all created equal. PIRG testers use a Consumer Reports recommended kit called LeadCheck. You can buy an 8-swab kit online for less than twenty bucks. Swab the toy and if the tip turns bright purple, there is surface lead. “Keep in mind, Mierzwinski warns, “The toy might still have other problems, like cadmium,” but this is a good preliminary test to check for lead.
Bring a toilet paper roll. If you’ve got young children, you can buy something called a choke-test cylinder, a clear plastic tube a little over an inch wide that costs about three dollars. Or you can bring an empty toilet paper roll. If your kid is under six, don’t buy anything with parts small enough to fit in the tube. Use your hands to try to pry off car wheels, action figure arms, and small parts. Sure, if you break it you buy it. But if you can pull of a part, so can your kid. So try before you buy. And remember, no balloons for children under 8. They cause more choking deaths each year than any other children’s product. If you must give balloons, give Mylar, not latex.
Avoid certain materials. For 22 years the U.S. PIRGs “Trouble in Toyland” report has offered safety guidelines for parents buying toys for small children. And while no toy is guaranteed safe, there are certain materials that are riskier than others, according to Mierzwinski. “Stay away from painted wood toys,” he says, “especially red or yellow painted toys, and avoid toys made of PVC plastic”. Why avoid soft plastic? Ahh, just another big bad secret of the toy industry. Phthalates are a class of chemicals used to soften hard plastic material—be it bendable action figures or pliable chewy toys—and they’re rampant in kids’ toys. The European Union has banned or seriously restricted the use of six phthalates in child products, based mostly on U.S. research, but they’re not regulated in America. And they’ve been linked to reproductive issues, early onset of puberty, and other serious health problems. Choose unpainted wood or cloth toys wherever possible, especially for children under the age of five.
Look for loose magnets. Magnets are becoming more and more, well, attractive, to toy producers. And they show up in everything from Pollie Pockets to Barbie accessories. The problem is, if kids swallow more than one, they can attract each other inside the body and cause a life-threatening tear to organs. If a toy on your shopping list has magnets, make sure you check that none are loose.
Protect your child’s ears. More than one in seven kids aged 6 to 17 show signs of hearing loss, according to a 1998 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. A few years ago, they put out new acoustics guidelines for toys, setting the loudness threshold at 90 decibels. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that regular listening at 85 decibels or higher can result in hearing damage. Lots of toys on today’s shelves exceed these safety standards. You can buy an inexpensive kit to test decibel levels from the comfort of your own living room. Or you can just use common sense and avoid toys that seem too loud, in favor of non-blipping, beeping models.
Trying to choose gifts this season can seem overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to seek help. You can look on the CPSC’s website for information about toys that have been recalled for safety reasons. You can check out our gift guide—we have assurances from every manufacturer whose products are featured there that they are lead-safe, or lead-free. You can print out the guidelines in this article and bring it to the store with you. Or you can think outside the toybox, Nancy Cowles of Kids in Danger says, “Maybe books and videos aren’t such a bad idea this Christmas.”
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