How to Select Safe Toys

10 minutes to read

More than 100,000 children are injured in toy-related accidents annually. Parents can take steps to prevent most toy injuries.

In October 1998, Fisher-Price, a toy maker in East Aurora, New York, recalled almost 10 million of its Power Wheel ride-on cars and trucks—the largest recall ever involving a toy sold in stores. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said the flawed electrical systems in the child-sized roadsters sparked 150 fires that burned nine children and caused $300,000 in property damage to 22 houses and garages. The safety agency also received another 700 reports of electrical components failing or overheating, causing smoke or melted parts, and complaints about the toys failing to stop when the foot pedal was released.

Approximately 2 billion toys are sold annually in the United States. Although most of these toys are safe, manufacturers recall dozens of defective toys every year for causing injury to children. Toys with no defects also can become dangerous if misused or played with by children who are too young to use them safely.

More than 100,000 children are injured in toy-related accidents every year, according to the CPSC, the federal agency that enforces government regulations concerning the safety of all consumer products including toys. Falls and choking account for the majority of toy-related injuries. Children also suffer strangulation, burns, drowning, and poisoning while playing with toys.

Most toy-related injuries are not life-threatening. Only 1 percent of children sustaining toy-related injuries are hospitalized, according to the CPSC. Occasionally, however, a toy maims or kills a child. In 1997, 13 children died in toy-related incidents.

The leading cause of toy-related death is choking. In 1997, 85 percent of toy-related deaths were due to choking, according to the CPSC. Riding toys, mostly tricycles, also have been involved in toy-related deaths. These deaths occurred when a child was hit by a motor vehicle while riding a toy or when a child rode a toy into a swimming pool, pond, or other body of water.

Children ages 4 and under are at highest risk for toy injury. In 1997, children ages 4 and under accounted for nearly 85 percent of toy-related fatalities and nearly 60 percent of all toy-related injuries, according to the CPSC. Small children are especially susceptible to choking on toys because of the small size of their upper airways and their natural desire to put everything in their mouths.

Why toys cause injury

Toy injuries occur for a number of reasons. Some toys cause injury because the product is defective. For example, in December 1998, Newell Rubbermaid Inc., of Wooster, Ohio, recalled 60,800 toboggans following reports that the sleds broke apart during use, causing injury. And in September 1998, Tara Toy Corporation of Hauppauge, New York, recalled 670,000 Flying Warrior dolls after the dolls broke off in mid-flight, causing serious eye injuries in two children.

In some cases, a toy is harmful not because it is defective, but because it is inherently unsafe. The most famous example of this type of toy is the lawn dart—a sharply pointed projectile that annually injured some 650 people, mostly children, until the CPSC banned its sale and manufacture in 1988. Another such toy is the aluminized polyester film kite, banned by the CPSC after some users were electrocuted when their kites tangled in power lines.

Most toys that harm children, however, do not cause injury through malfunction or unsafe design. They cause injury when used by children who are too young or inexperienced to play with them in the manner intended by the manufacturer. The toys are, in fact, perfectly safe when used properly. Balloons, for example, pose almost no health risk to children when used appropriately. Yet, balloons that are misused by children cause almost half of all choking deaths from toys. Nearly 50 children choked to death in the 1990’s after stuffing balloons in their mouths, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign, a nonprofit organization that attempts to prevent childhood injury.

Some toys that are safe for older children may pose a health hazard to younger children. Toys that contain small balls or parts are unsafe for small children, who could choke on the tiny pieces. Even button eyes on stuffed toys can choke a small child to death. Yet, the same toy may pose no choking danger to older children, who have larger throats and are less likely to mouth objects.

Other toys may pose an invisible threat to children. Government studies show that hazardous chemicals can be found in or on some toys. As recently as 1994, for example, the CPSC discovered that certain brands of imported crayons contained hazardous levels of lead. Children who chewed on the crayons were at risk of developing lead poisoning, a condition that can cause damage to the brain, nerves, red blood cells, and digestive system.

Research released in November 1998 by the nonprofit environmental groups Greenpeace and the National Environment Trust stated that numerous toys used by children contain a chemical that caused cancer in laboratory animals. The studies’ figures proved that up to 20 percent of toys in the United States contain phthalates, a widely used plastic additive that gives plastic toys a softer, more pliable feel. By 1999, most large toy companies had stopped using phthalate additives.

Pesticides (insect-killing substances) are another toxic risk. A study released in January 1998 showed that pesticides tend to stick to toys at dangerously high levels. Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey sprayed an apartment with pesticide. An hour later, they placed toys throughout the apartment. Two weeks after spraying, the researchers examined the pesticide residue on the toys. They concluded that children playing with the toys would be exposed to 20 times the government-recommended daily amount of pesticide.

Industry safety controls

The toy manufacturing industry is the first line of defense against toy injury. The Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA), an association that includes the producers of 85 percent of all toys sold in the United States, is the industry’s most powerful regulatory arm. Safety experts rank the standards set by the TMA as the most comprehensive in the world. For example, the TMA requires that toy makers perform rigorous safety testing on products, sometimes requiring more than 100 safety tests on a single toy. Among other safety factors, manufacturers evaluate a toy based on a child’s age and skill level. They then label the product with an age designation to help parents and other adults choose safe and suitable toys.

Industry standards are sometimes tougher than safety laws. For example, in 1998, the TMA prohibited its members from using any lead in toy production. In contrast, the Federal Hazardous Substance Act prohibits only hazardous amounts of poisonous material, such as lead, in toy manufacturing.

Government’s role in toy safety

In addition to voluntary industry standards, toy makers must also meet safety requirements set by the federal government. For example, federal law mandates that toys for children under 8 years of age contain no glass or metal edges. In addition, the Child Safety Protection Act of 1994 regulates safety labeling on toys and games. The act requires that toy makers post hazard labels on toys containing small parts, such as balls or marbles, that may cause choking in children aged 6 and under. It also bans the use of balls smaller than 1.75 inches (4.4 centimeters) in toys for children under age 3. Congress enacted these strict labeling requirements in 1994 after looser regulations set in 1979 proved to have too many loopholes for toy manufacturers to abuse.

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Companies that do not adhere to federal safety standards can be investigated and prosecuted by the CPSC. In December 1998, for example, the CPSC charged that Small World Toys Inc. of Culver City, California, imported and sold toys that violated the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. The CPSC fined the company $225,000.

Federal law requires that toy makers report any product defects to the CPSC. Companies that fail to do so can be fined up to $1.5 million. Laws also require toy makers to report any toy-related injuries to the CPSC.

Toy recalls

In the event that a toy causes injury to a child, the CPSC may demand that the toy maker recall the product. In October 1998, for example, the CPSC announced that a xylophone made by Playwell Toy Inc. of Lake Forest, California, included parts smaller than allowed by the Child Safety Protection Act of 1994. According to the CPSC, the rounded ends of the xylophone mallets could become lodged in the throats of small children and block their airways. The CPSC asked the toy maker to recall xylophones after a six-month-old girl suffered severe brain damage as a result of choking on one of the mallets.

The manufacturer is responsible for repairing, replacing, or refunding the cost of recalled toys. Toy makers almost always cooperate with the CPSC in product recalls. If a company refuses to recall a toy, however, the CPSC can force them to recall the toy with a court order.

The most difficult part of a recall is informing the public. The CPSC and the toy maker attempt to publicize a recall through press releases, advertisements, store postings, and announcements on web sites. The most effective way to notify toy owners is through product registration or warranty cards. However, only a small percent of individuals bother to submit this important information to manufacturers after purchasing a product. In many cases, recalled toys remain in children’s hands because their parents either never learned of the recall or never bothered to send the toy back to the manufacturer. In 1997, for example, a 7-year-old Indiana boy suffered a brain injury after his skull was pierced with a lawn dart, which the CPSC had recalled nearly 10 years before.

Several citizen action groups also monitor toy safety. Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG), a leading citizen action association with local branches in most states, conducts its own toy safety studies. PIRG annually publishes a report on toy safety and maintains a web site offering toy safety information.

How adults can prevent toy-related injuries

Government and industry regulation does much to protect children from toy-related injuries, but parents and other adults are chiefly responsible for toy safety. By reading labels on toys, examining toys before giving them to children, teaching children how to use toys correctly, and supervising play, adults can prevent most toy injuries.

Safety begins with selection of an appropriate toy. The National Safe Kids Campaign advises adults to buy age-appropriate toys and to keep toys designed for older children away from younger siblings. When purchasing a toy for a child under 6 years of age, carefully check for choking hazard labels. Make sure the toy’s package has not been opened before purchase.

After purchasing the toy, examine it for cracks, sharp edges, and loose pieces that could end up in a child’s mouth. Strings longer than 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) pose a strangulation hazard for young children. If a toy or toy part fits inside a cardboard toilet paper tube, then it poses a choking danger for children under age 3, according to the CPSC. Check stuffed animals for loose eyes and other sewn-on objects. Do not let children under age 8 play with balloons.

Once you bring the toy home, discard any plastic packaging immediately to prevent a child from choking on it. Before you allow a child to play with a toy, read the instructions, and explain its proper use to the child.

The CPSC recommends that toys requiring the use of fire or heat, such as wood-burning kits, toy ovens, and chemistry sets, never be given to children under age 12. Older children using these toys require adult supervision.

Parents should also closely supervise children playing with projectile toys or toys with flying parts, such as darts or rockets. Also, check the noise level of each toy to prevent hearing damage to the children who play with it.

Maintenance is another important safety factor. Adults should regularly check the working condition of toys. Wooden toys may develop sharp edges and splinters, for example, and metal toys may rust. Repair or dispose of worn or broken toys. Never repaint a toy using older paint; it may contain lead.

Instruct older children to keep their toys out of reach of younger siblings. And, finally, require that children put their toys away in a safe place after play.

Selecting age-appropriate toys

In addition to safety factors, adults should also consider a child’s intellectual and physical development when choosing a toy. The American Academy of Pediatrics has established guidelines to help adults select toys that provide stimulation for children in different age groups. According to these guidelines, appropriate toys for infants (newborn to 1 year old) include those that stimulate senses of sight, hearing, and touch. Large wood or plastic blocks, rattles, soft washable animals or dolls, and squeeze toys are suitable toys for infants. Rattles should be new, sturdy, and not subject to breakage.

Toys appropriate for toddlers, ages 1 to 2 years, help them begin their exploration of the world around them. Appropriate toys include picture books of cloth or plastic, sturdy dolls, kid-sized vehicles that are foot-powered, nesting blocks, push-pull toys (with strings no longer than 12 inches), and toy telephones (avoid phones that accept coins or those that ring loudly).

Toys for preschoolers, aged 3 to 5, should allow for experimentation and also imitation of older children and adults. These toys include books, simple puzzles with large pieces, nontoxic crayons or finger paints, and nontoxic clays. Outdoor toys include sandbox (with lid), slide, swing, and transportation toys, such as tricycles and wagons.

Toys for school-age children, aged 6 to 9, should promote skill development and creativity. Children in this age group enjoy making things out of paper, and toys that involve drawing, cutting, and pasting are appropriate. Other toys that children in this age group might enjoy include hand puppets, card and table games, jump ropes, and bicycles.

The guidelines recommend crafts and science-based toys for preteens and young teens, aged 10 through 14. These toys include computer games; sewing, knitting, and needlework kits; microscopes and telescopes; and hobby equipment. Sporting equipment, with the appropriate safety accessories, such as a helmet for bike riding, is also an appropriate choice.

Parents and other adults share responsibility with toy manufacturers in protecting children from toy injury, safety experts point out. With wise, careful selection of age-appropriate toys and instruction on their proper use in play, parents can help prevent almost all toy-related accidents.

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