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Maeve Tobin hopes she'll find Dora the Explorer toys under the Christmas tree this year. But the 2-year-old may be disappointed, since her mother, Alison, doesn't plan to buy those playthings for her.
"She wants Dora toys, but they were listed as dangerous, so I won't be getting any for her," said Tobin, an Acton mother of four.
Like millions of parents, Tobin is extra vigilant this holiday season as she shops for her children. More than 25 million unsafe toys, many imported from China and containing lead paint, cadmium and other dangerous elements, were recalled this year.
"Everyone's worried about toy safety, and it's putting stress on parents," said Officer Paul Corcoran, Lowell's safety/crime prevention officer and a member of the Massachusetts Safety Officers League.
Lead paint is the year's biggest concern.
"Parents worry most about that, since it is in so many toys, particularly those manufactured abroad," said Corcoran.
Mary Lou Kelleher, a pediatric clinical nurse
specialist at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, urges parents to avoid "play bling" -- the flashy play jewelry little girls love -- because the shine comes from lead paint.
Vigilance is crucial, she said.
"A toy may have been recalled, but it still may be on a store shelf. Parents should stick with reputable companies and check Web sites for recalls," Kelleher said. "Buy age and developmentally appropriate toys made of nontoxic materials. Look for well-constructed, durable and, above all, safe, fun, attractive and colorful toys."
That's what Tobin is doing.
"I try to keep up with what's been recalled through the news and on the Internet," said Tobin. "I won't buy anything I've seen recalled, and I've thrown out some plastic food toys that were found to contain lead."
Mira Troppenhagen, a Lowell mother of two, says her friends are clearing out unsafe toys, too.
"My friends have cleaned out the kids' rooms, thrown out unsafe toys and are starting over with more basic toys," said Troppenhagen, who owns haus, a store that sells European products and toys.
Customers at Rogers Toys in Lowell are concerned with recalls, said owner Gary Rogers.
"There's concern with all the publicity, but we've scanned the (recall) lists and removed toys that were on them," he said. "Our customers are vigilant and are asking pertinent questions. Some want toys that are made in the U.S., but to be honest, most everything is made in China."
Toy safety has concerned parents and such consumer groups as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group for decades.
But this year's recalls have brought it into the spotlight, said Janet Domenitz, MassPIRG executive director.
"The high-profile product recalls have given us a chance to urge Congress to pass strong product-safety reforms and give our kids the best holiday gift of all," she said.
Beth Rosenberg, a UMass Lowell graduate and Tufts University assistant professor of public health, is a strong supporter of the Web site www.healthytoys.org, which ranks more than 1,500 toys in terms of lead and other chemicals associated with cancer. The toy recalls are just the tip of the iceberg, she said.
"It highlights our toxic production system. The way we produce goods and products we use every day is simply not safe, and we've decided to outsource our manufacturing to countries that have virtually no environmental or labor standards, because it's cheap. We are paying a big price," she said.
Rosenberg suggests buying books, unpainted wooden toys and European-made toys, because manufacturing rules from the European Union are more stringent than in other countries, including the U.S.
More of Troppenhagen's customers are looking for European-made toys this year. "But just because it's wooden doesn't mean it's a quality toy. We have to be aware of who makes it and get educated," she said.
Getting educated and staying alert to toy safety is crucial, said Corcoran.
"I tell parents to check the CPSC and other Web sites. Be alert to what's going on in the news. It's difficult to stay on top of it, but we have to stay informed. Our children's safety depends on it," he said.
And, Kelleher concluded, "Somehow in the middle of it all, parents should try to enjoy the holidays, too."
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