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Annual 'Trouble in Toyland' Report: Toys Safer, But Still Reason for Caution

WISPIRG's Trever Hutcheson discusses the 27th annual Trouble in Toyland report.Madison, Wisconsin - While you're out checking lists of gifts for the good boys and girls in your life this holiday season, make sure to check another list, too.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group's 27th annual "Trouble in Toyland" report on toy safety found several toys that either violate federal regulations or are dangerous for other reasons.

Trever Hutcheson, a consumer advocate with the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, discussed some of the report's findings at a news conference along with Nicole Vesely of the Safe Kids Madison Area Coalition.

"Today the message is clear: We need to protect our littlest consumers," Hutcheson said. "Although toys are safer than they have ever been before, there are still a lot of hazardous toys out on the market that we need to make sure we're being aware of."

The report and Hutcheson's presentation focused on four areas: choking hazards, toys with dangerous chemicals, magnetic toys and excessively noisy toys.

Hutcheson said USPIRG continues to ask the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees the regulations for toy manufacturers, to change the standards for its small parts test.

The CPSC uses a plastic cylinder to test whether a toy is a potential choking hazard. Toys that fit in the cylinder, which is 2.25 inches long and 1.25 inches in diameter, are banned for ages 3 and under.

Some toys featured in the Trouble in Toyland report: Play food, a Morphobot action figure and a backpack that contain phthalates.

Instead, Hutcheson recommends using something everyone has in their homes as a measure of a safe toy: An empty toilet-paper roll, which he said commonly measures 1.75 inches in diameter.

"You can put toys in here and know that it's not safe for children under 3 if it passes through this," he said.

Another concern is the number of small, plastic toys that look like food products - children naturally want to put those toys in their mouths, Hutcheson said.

Lead hasn't been allowed in household paints since 1978 and was phased out of gasoline in the 1970s and '80s, but still shows up in some toys. CPSC guidelines restrict lead to 100 parts per million, but USPIRG found lead levels of 180 parts of million in a "Morphobot" action figure currently on store shelves.

"This is a toy that you definitely want to be paying attention to," Hutcheson said.

"We haven't sent all the toys in the whole country to a lab, but there are definitely toys on the shelves that could contain lead and aren't meeting the standards."

Meanwhile, phthalates are still a concern. The chemicals are used to soften plastics, but have been connected to adverse reproductive and developmental health effects. USPIRG would like the CPSC to alter its policy concerning labeling of products that contain phthalates.

Toys that are below the standard of 1,000 parts per million don't have to disclose the presence of phthalates. Hutcheson pointed to a Washington state law that requires products with phthalates to be labeled as such, no matter the level, and said that should be the model for the federal guideline.

Snake Eggs magnets are strong enough to connect through plastic.

Magnetic toys have been in the news more in recent years, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.

From 2009-11, there were approximately 1,700 emergency room visits relating to magnets, with an estimated 70 percent of them involving children aged 4 to 12.

"They are so powerful ... If two of them were swallowed, they could actually connect in the body and sever tissue and cause intestinal issues," Hutcheson said. "Definitely a problem."

He showed the example of "Snake Eggs," a toy consisting of two high-powered, bullet-shaped magnets. The toy just barely passes the CPSC small parts test - the very tip of the magnet is above the top of the plastic cylinder - and is strong enough to connect between the plastic.

And finally, if you are shopping for a musically inclined child, be careful.

The Dora Tunes Guitar exceeds CPSC standards for decibels, according to USPIRG.

One-fifth of American children suffer some sort of hearing loss before age 12, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

The Dora Tunes Guitar checks in at 93 decibels from 10 inches away - that is above the CPSC allowable standard of 85 decibels. "Being continuously exposed to 85 decibels contributes to that hearing loss," Hutcheson said.

Before publishing "Trouble in Toyland," USPIRG reports its findings to the CPSC. And, despite their hopes to the contrary, the group expects to continue this annual holiday tradition.

"It seems like common sense, but (some toys) do get past some of the regulations," Hutcheson said. "We just need to be doing this every year to remind folks."

Toy-Buying Tips

  • Buy age-appropriate toys for children
  • Look for quality design and construction - toys that break easily into smaller parts can become a choking hazard
  • Avoid toys with small batteries or magnets
  • Make sure safety gear is included when needed, such as helmets and knee pads for bicycles and skateboards
  • Report any injuries or unsafe toys to the CPSC at www.saferproducts.gov

Date Published: 12/06/2012

News tag(s):  kidssafe kidssafety