|By Joan Dawson, MPH and Diana Zuckerman, PhD
An increasing number of toys and products have been pulled off the shelves this year because they were found to be harmful to children. According to Consumers Union, toy recall levels have reached a record high in 2007, with over 20 million toys recalled for having lead or other hazards. Some swings, cribs and bicycles were also found to be unsafe. The bottom line: parents need to be more careful when they buy or use these products, because they can’t count on government inspectors to ensure 100% safety.
Who Makes Sure That Toys and Children’s Products are Safe?
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is an independent federal regulatory agency whose job is to protect the public from products that could pose electrical, chemical or mechanical hazards. This includes toys, household items, furniture, bicycles and many other products used by children and families.
The CPSC develops and enforces standards, recalls products, conducts research and educates the public. This is an enormous responsibility, and their budget has not kept up with the work load. Fewer inspections means that too many products are being placed on retailers’ shelves without being adequately tested.
CPSC budget problems are not the only reason to be concerned about the safety of toys and other products. For example, the agency has been criticized for weakening safeguards for all-terrain vehicles in 1998, which resulted in thousands of people dying from ATV accidents since then.
Companies themselves are not required to test many of the products that are sold in stores and brought to our homes. As a result, about 33 million people are injured by consumer products each year. So in August, the CPSC made a list of the top five hidden home hazards to help the public identify potential dangers. Topping the list was magnets in toys and coming in second was recalled products (tip-overs, window coverings and pool drains also made the list).
Magnets and Toys
Magnets have been used in toys for a long time, but companies are now using smaller and more powerful magnets referred to as “rare-earth” magnets. These magnets are found not only in toys but also in some jewelry and refrigerator magnets. The problem arises when children swallow them. According to CPSC, if two or more are swallowed, these magnets “can attract in the body and twist or pinch the intestines, causing holes, blockages, infection, and death, if not treated properly and promptly.” Symptoms include stomach pains, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. These magnets may be very small, most parents won’t even see them, and the children don’t realize what they are swallowing, so it can be difficult to diagnose.
Mattel’s Polly Pocket play sets were recalled in November 2006 for having tiny magnets in the dolls’ hands and feet, clothing, hair accessories and other accessories. Some of the magnets had fallen out of 170 sets. They were accidentally ingested by three children who, as a result, required surgery.
Lead and Toys
One of the most common reasons for recalls this year was the presence of lead in toys. Jewelry, bibs, lunch boxes and clothes were also been found to contain this metal. When lead enters the human body, whether inhaled or eaten, it can affect almost any organ or system. In young children, lead exposure can lead to developmental delays or learning disabilities.
You can have toys tested for lead yourself with home kits. Although the CPSC warns that such tests may be inaccurate, Consumer Reports believe they are useful and fairly easy to use – with a little practice. However, they agree with CPSC that the kit can detect lead only on the surface of a toy, not underneath it. If the test is negative, but you have reason to believe the toy contains lead, it can be tested by a professional (but it will not be returned). The home kit is unable to test metal jewelry, but Consumer Reports warns against buying any jewelry for children because children are likely to suck on or swallow it and cheap metal jewelry is likely to contain lead.
Some of the Toys Recalled for Lead ContaminationMattel’s Barbie Dolls and Accessories – In September 2007, Mattel Inc. recalled 800,000 Barbie dolls and 675,000 accessories because the toys contained lead paint and small magnets that could be swallowed by young children.
Fisher-Price’s Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer Dolls – In August 2007, Fisher-Price recalled nearly a million Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer dolls and play-figures because they contained lead paint.
RC2 Corp.’s Thomas the Tank EngineToys – In June 2007, RC2 Corp. recalled about 200,000 Thomas the Tank Engine wooden railway toys because the paint contained lead.
Other Dangers in Toys
Aside from magnets and lead, toys can be hazardous if they cause injuries such as choking, strangulation, burning or poisoning.
Aqua Dots craft kits (also known as Aqua Beads) were recalled after two young children ingested the small colored beads and became comatose. Researchers found that the coating on the beads contained a chemical that, when ingested, could break down into GHB, known as the date-rape drug, and cause coma, respiratory depression and seizures. Fortunately, the children have recuperated.
HealthyToys.org lists several chemicals, such as cadmium, chlorine, arsenic and mercury that consumers should know about. They tested products and found these chemicals in toys. In some cases, standards exist for safe levels but are not enforced.
Other Unsafe Products
The CPSC has jurisdiction over more than 15,000 types of consumer products used in and around the home, in sports, recreation, and schools. In addition to toys, these products include:
- Household items, such as clothing, furniture, cookware and electrical devices
- Outdoor products, such as sprinklers, lawn mowers, grills, and gardening equipment
- Sports and recreation products, such as bicycles, tents, snowmobiles and golf carts
- Child products, such as cribs, clothing, jewelry and strollers
- Specialty products, such as vending machines and emergency lights
The CPSC has recalled two all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) this year. Some ATV companies are lobbying Congress to make the safety standards on ATVs mandatory rather than voluntary. Unfortunately, the voluntary standards have allowed cheaper and less safe vehicles to be marketed.
The CPSC is also supposed to regulate amusement park rides. Unfortunately, these rides are rarely inspected, and in the past ten years, for example, five deaths have occurred on the Sizzler ride. The CPSC, however, has yet to act.
The products that are not regulated by the CPSC include automobiles and other on-road vehicles, tires, boats, alcohol, tobacco, firearms, food, medicine, cosmetics, pesticides, and medical devices.
Unsafe Products for Your ChildBassettbaby Wendy Bellissimo Collection Convertible Crib – This crib was recalled in November 2007 after reports that the bolts that connect the corners of the crib can loosen, creating a gap and posing an entrapment and suffocation hazard.
Bumbo Baby Sitter Seats – This seat was recalled in October 2007 after reports that when it was placed on an elevated surface, the child could arch its back and flip out of the seat.
Huffy “Howler” and “Highland” Bicycles – These bicycles were recalled in October 2007 after reports that the crank could unexpectedly fall off, causing the rider to lose control, fall and sustain injuries.
Razor USA E300 Electric Scooters – This scooter was removed from the market in October 2007 after reports that the handlebar could detach, causing the rider to fall off.
Fisher-Price Rainforest Open Top Take-Along Swing – This swing was recalled in May 2007 after reports that babies could get stuck between the seat and the frame, causing cuts and bruises.
What Can You Do to Keep Your Kids Safe?
1. Check to see if any of your child’s toys or products have been recalled. You can do this by visiting the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Web site at http://www.recalls.gov. If the toy or product has been recalled, check the guidelines for what to do next as procedures vary. And, if you find recalled products on the shelf the next time you go shopping, notify the retailer. If the toy has been recalled for lead, throw it out immediately but don’t panic. If you have purchased it recently, it may not have done any harm. If, however, your child has played with it for a while or parts of it have broken off, have a doctor test your child’s blood for lead.
2. Throw away toys that you believe may contain harmful chemicals. These would include toys with chipped paint, broken parts, or worn down plastic. If you have any doubts, throw it away. You can, and should, clean toys regularly in case any household dirt or dust (that might contain lead) has contaminated them.
3. Be careful which toys you buy. Just because they are for sale doesn’t mean they are safe. Most toys today are coming from China. This is also where most of the recalls have occurred. If you’d like, you can try to find toys made in the USA or even make them yourself. If you do, just be sure to use materials that state they are “non-toxic.” Also, avoid buying vintage toys that may have been painted with lead-based paint. If you have any at home, store them out of reach of young children.
For More Information
Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning
Consumer Product Safety Commission
Department of Health and Human Services