Nov. 26, 2002 -- It is the time of year when toys come to the forefront of many parents' consciousness. It is a time to make lists and grant wishes.
It is also a time to consider toy safety, according to the latest annual survey of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), titled "Trouble in Toyland," which highlights potential risks of toys discovered on store shelves during a survey in October and November 2002.
A survey by the Consumer Product and Safety Commission (CPSC) identified 255,100 toy-related injuries in U.S. emergency rooms in 2001, with 25 toy-related deaths. Balloons were one of the most serious offenders, with children choking on balloon fragments after they pop unexpectedly. The PIRG has also released a brochure entitled "Tips for Toy Safety," which is available from the PIRG or can be downloaded from www.toysafety.net.
In case you've already done your holiday shopping, the CPSC released a list of toys that have been recalled over the past year, along with steps to take to return them. It also lists other products that could pose a danger to children. (http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml03/03044.html)
"Children still needlessly choke to death on toys that can be found on store shelves," said Jen Thompson, PIRG consumer associate and an author on the report, at a news conference. Such hazards remain despite the passage in 1994 of the Child Safety Protection Act.
Toy manufacturers don't agree with the conclusions. "Toys are the safest they have ever been," said Pamela Johnston, a spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association, which provides its own "toy hotline" to answer questions about toys and safe play, including suggestions for types of toys by age group and a "top 10" to-do list for toy safety (http://www.toy-tma.com/consumer/parents/safety/4toysafety.html).
The report identified several key areas of concern. Choking on small balls or balloons continues to be a leading cause of death, and many balloons are sold from bins that contain no warning labels. The PIRG recommended that children under the age of 8 should be steered away from balloons. But if balloons are a must, try mylar balloons, which tend to be safer, said Thompson.
Thompson said that round objects, such as small balls, are more dangerous than irregular objects. A good at-home test is the toilet-paper tube, she said. If a toy or any easily detachable part of it can fit completely within a toilet paper tube, it should not be given to a child under 3, she said. Any such parts should be removed from the toy before it is presented to the child.
The report also took issue with the labeling on toys sold over the Internet. The PIRG surveyed 45 online retailers and found that none displayed the safety labels required to appear on toys sold in stores.
The PIRG's report also identified issues with loud toys that have the potential to cause hearing loss. "Let's be realistic, loud toys aren't going to kill children. [But a moderate hearing loss] can be the difference between paying close attention and drifting off" in a classroom later in life, said pediatrician Ben Gitterman, MD, of the Children's National Medical Center and the Mid-Atlantic for Children's Health and the Environment, also at the news conference. Asked whether hearing loss later in life could be directly traced to loud toys, Gitterman conceded that it couldn't, but he insisted that the "precautionary principle" should be applied in case such a relationship does exist.
And if you already have loud toys buzzing about the house? Put masking tape over the speakers, or remove the battery, said Thompson.
Better yet, "If it seems too loud, don't buy it," said industry spokeswoman Johnston. That may be the best advice of all.