At a time when children are compiling their holiday wish lists, parents are fretting over another one: the safe toy list.
Barbie. Batman. Dora. Razor Scooters. Thomas the Tank Engine. All top contenders for space under the Christmas tree -- until they hit the toy recall list for safety violations. The dangers range from lead paint and choking hazards to faulty construction.
According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), toy-related injuries sent almost 73,000 children under the age of 5 to emergency rooms in 2005. Twenty children also died from toy-related injuries that same year.
More than 170 million units of jewelry -- most made in China and marketed to children in this country -- have been recalled since 2004, according to Scott Wolfson of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). And 31.7 million other units of toys were recalled during the past 14 months.
''For many parents, the more immediate concern is which toys could -- or should -- be recalled that are still sitting on shelves, waiting to be purchased. Several consumer interest groups such as PIRG have found that while most toys on store shelves are safe, some still pose hazards. Among the dangers: lead paint, choking and strangulation hazards, magnets, toys that are too loud, and those containing other toxic chemicals.
Safe Toys: Not Just Lead -- and Not Just From China
The situation has many parents asking where they can find safe toys this holiday season.
"I'm kind of worried about the lead paint," says Blair Comacho, 25, a Southern California resident and mother of two. "We had several of the things that were recalled. I had to throw them out."
Camacho, whose children are 4 and 22 months of age, said she isn't buying anything made in China.
"I'm not even going into the stores. I'm probably going to find a 'Made in America' web site," she says.
John F. Rosen, MD, a professor of pediatrics and childhood lead poisoning specialist at Montefiore Children's Hospital in New York, says that it's not who makes the toys that matters. It's where they are manufactured.
"Where it's made is critical," he says. "There are safe toys made in the U.S. and the European Union."
Wolfson wants parents to understand that the dangers aren't just limited to lead poisoning, however -- or toys made in China.
Magnets are an especially urgent concern for Wolfson because of their immediate, life-threatening danger -- and because they're so popular.
If a child swallows more than one magnet, they can fuse in the intestine, causing a blockage that usually requires surgery. "If doctors do not take an X-ray quickly enough and see that there is a need for surgery, you have a very, very, very serious health emergency that often results in death," Wolfson says.
The magnet problem is not limited to young children. Ten of the 22 cases brought to the attention of the CPSC involved children aged 6 to 11.
Safe Toys: Buyer Beware
Experts interviewed by WebMD urge parents to pay careful attention to the CPSC's recall list and follow manufacturers' remedies for replacement or reimbursement.
They also offer the following tips on toys to avoid:
- Brightly painted toys (wood, plastic, and metal) made in Pacific Rim countries, particularly China, because of lead paint dangers. Parents may even want to shun brightly colored plastic toys made from molds, which have been a problem in previous years. Children mouthing the toys for extended periods can get lead poisoning, which can cause irreversible neurological damage.
- Ceramic or pottery toys manufactured outside the U.S. and Europe, because of lead dangers. If children drink tea from a ceramic tea set, for example, the lead from the ceramic can leach into the tea.
- Many products from any countries outside the U.S. and Europe. Mexican pottery and candy, for example, have tested for high levels of lead.
- Soft vinyl toys can also contain toxins, including lead.
- Toys with small parts can pose a choking hazard for young children. Government regulations specify that toys for children under age 3 cannot have parts less than 1 1/4 inches in diameter and 2 1/4 inches long.
- Pull toys with strings that are more than 12 inches in length, which can be a strangulation hazard for babies.
- Magnetic toys, which can be swallowed by young children.
- All jewelry, especially metal jewelry, for children of all ages. Many jewelry pieces -- even some marked "lead-free" -- have contained dangerous levels of lead.
- Items that contain "phthalates," or toxic chemicals, such as xylene, dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and benzene, which can cause health problems in children.
- Toys that are not age-appropriate. Toys intended for older children can harm younger ones. And older children who play with toys intended for younger ones can be injured when, out of boredom, they seek unintended uses for the toys.
Experts also caution that parents should pay attention to warning labels, which mean the toy can be dangerous. At the same time, they shouldn't be deceived by manufacturers' labels, which are voluntary and not always factual. This includes labels that say "toxic-free" and "lead-free," among others.
Safe Toys: Widely Available
The good news is that plenty of safe toys are widely available both here and abroad.
You can find a list of companies that report selling American-made toys and products at toysmadeinamerica. This site provides 136 links to toy companies, many of which are small, family-owned businesses. Some are eco-friendly as well.
For information about buying other products reported to be made in America, visit www.howtobuyamerican.com.
For a self-reported list of products made in Europe, visit www.moolka.com or www.maukilo.com, two online retailers that boast an extensive selection of European-made products for children of all ages, including a variety of jewelry.
Fun suggestions for older kids include acoustic guitars and instruments, scooters, and a wide selection of purses, bags, and wallets.
Safe Toys: Reason for the Season?
What can parents do if their child is wailing for last month's "it" toy, when that item may pose a danger?
"Make it simple," he says. "Today's parents explain things in too wordy a fashion."
Rosemond also believes that most families have far too many toys, anyway -- and most are the wrong kind.
He suggests that parents use this opportunity to get rid of dangerous toys and superfluous ones. Ideally, kids should have no more than 10 toys at a time -- and as many as possible should be toys that require imagination and creativity.
"I've been telling parents to get rid of 80% of their children's toys long before this controversy started," he says. "They play much more creatively and imaginatively, the fewer toys they have. There is also less sibling conflict and more family, and the kids play for longer periods of time, which means they bug the parents less."