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This year's recalls of dangerous toys — coated with lead paint, or equipped with potentially lethal magnets — alerted parents to an unsettling fact: Government oversight of the industry is so minimal that toy makers' compliance with safety standards is basically on the honor system. "When toys make it onto store shelves, parents assume that they've passed some rigorous standards," says James Swartz, director of WATCH (World Against Toys Causing Harm), a nonprofit advocacy group. "The very hard lesson of the past few months is that this is not so."
The spotlight on safety has raised hopes for new laws requiring mandatory testing of toys. In the meantime, however, protection is a parent's job. In 2005, an estimated 152,400 children nationwide were treated in hospital emergency rooms after toy-related incidents, including choking and strangulation, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). How do you keep your kid from becoming a statistic? Unfortunately, home lead-test kits aren't foolproof; they can yield false negatives, as GH reported in September 2007 in Playing with Poison. But there are plenty of other ways to keep your child safe. Take these steps while shopping, at holiday time and beyond.
Change your mind-set
You can't count on the old indicators of quality — brand names (like Mattel) or high price tags (such as those on Thomas & Friends trains). Toy makers and retailers are promising new safety measures this holiday season (see "Better Testing," below). Ultimately, though, you need to assess your possible purchases and decide what's safe. Swartz suggests you watch out for small breakable parts, like plastic rings or beads that a toddler could pry loose and choke on, or plastic eyes that could be pulled off a teddy bear. Remember that a pull toy with a string longer than 12 inches poses a strangulation hazard. Bottom line: Trust your instincts.
Don't be lulled by "Made in USA" labels
Parents are especially concerned about items made in China, the source of 80 percent of toys sold here — including all of those recalled this past summer. Still, a product with a "Made in USA" label could be assembled here but have parts that are manufactured elsewhere, Swartz warns. Plus, some American-made toys were also recalled in recent years. And Mattel has acknowledged that in the case of toys containing dangerous magnets, the trouble was its own design flaws and not Chinese manufacturing practices. According to a 2007 study of U.S. toy recalls over the last 20 years, 76 percent were due to faulty design, not manufacturing problems (like lead paint), which accounted for just 10 percent of recalls in the study. So do your own assessment of toys with the "Made in USA" label.
Check for choking hazards
Look for a warning on the package alerting you to small parts dangerous to children under 3. But even if there's no cautionary language, all may not be well; some toys that can pass the manufacturer's safety test may still pose a hazard. Products require a warning if small parts fit completely inside a "choke tube" without being compressed. "Of course, a child putting something in her mouth will compress it to get it in there," Swartz points out.
An at-home test
Try inserting small toys and parts in a toilet paper roll, which is slightly wider than the choke tube. If an object can enter the roll, it can choke a child.
Exercise extra caution online
The CPSC does not require Internet retailers to include choking-hazard warnings on Websites — so look closely at gifts ordered on the Net. Many online retailers let you post wish lists for friends and family; you can create one that suggests only products you've approved. And use the Internet to your advantage by checking to see whether a toy — including any for sale on auction sites like eBay — is listed among the recalls at cpsc.gov.
Banish too-loud toys
Prolonged play with a noisemaking toy can induce hearing loss. The nonprofit Sight & Hearing Association of St. Paul, MN, publishes a list of toys that exceed the recommended 90-decibel limit (sightandhearing.org). If there's a "try me!" button, test the sound level before you buy (and remember that kids play close to the speakers). "If you think it's too loud, it probably is," says Deanna Meinke, Ph.D., assistant professor of audiology at the University of Northern Colorado. To be sure, you can buy a sound-level meter for under $50 at an electronics store.
If your kid gets a super-loud gift and loves it, secure clear packing tape over the speakers to dull the din.
Watch out for magnets and batteries
If a child swallows two or more magnets, the attracting forces can cause fatal intestinal damage. For that reason, young kids who put things in their mouths are at risk from toys with magnets that can come loose (check cpsc.govfor the list of recalls). And beware the "button" batteries frequently found in books, musical greeting cards, and watches. While a swallowed button battery usually passes without harm, it can lodge in the esophagus, causing tissue damage. If your child swallows a battery that carries a charge, it could create an electrical current and cause an internal burn. To be safe, keep books and other products with button batteries on high shelves, out of little kids' reach.
Now in Stores: Better Testing
What are toy makers and retailers doing to protect children this season?
In August, Wal-Mart, one of the largest toy merchants in the United States, began a "toy safety net" program, asking suppliers to resubmit testing documentation for toys currently on store shelves or on order. In addition, three independent laboratories will now test 200 toys a day, starting with those for children under 3. They'll check for problems like sharp edges, choking hazards, and lead-tainted paint.
Other companies have announced their own initiatives. Toys "R" Us set up a Website to help users find toy recall information (toysrus.com/safety), as well as an e-mail notification system for product recalls. The Walt Disney Company promised to hire independent companies to randomly test its toys for lead and other hazards.
In September, China signed an agreement prohibiting lead paint on products shipped to the United States, and the CEO of Mattel pledged before Congress to test the safety of its toys in the company's own laboratories or in labs certified by Mattel. One downside: Analysts predict that because of increased testing, shoppers are likely to see prices go up — by roughly 10 percent — starting next year.
Critics argue that these measures aren't enough. One of the biggest obstacles to safety, they say, is the inadequacy of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "It's underfunded and understaffed, and it doesn't have the enforcement teeth to carry out its mission," says Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, a consumer advocacy group. "A good step people can take is to write their representatives in Congress to tell them the CPSC needs more staff and more money to keep our children safe."
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