Report: Consumer Protection

Trouble In Toyland 2003

Released by: U.S. PIRG

Toys are safer than ever before, thanks to decades of advocacy by product safety advocates and parents and the leadership of Congress, state legislatures and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Nevertheless, as parents venture into crowded malls and browse for the perfect toy on the Internet this holiday season, they should remain vigilant about often hidden hazards posed by toys on store shelves.

The 2003 Trouble in Toyland report is the 18th annual Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) survey of toy safety. This report provides safety guidelines for parents when purchasing toys for small children and provides examples of toys currently on store shelves that pose potential safety hazards. PIRG’s research focused on four categories of toys: toys that pose choking hazards, toys that are dangerously loud, toys that pose strangulation hazards or could form sharp projectiles, and toys that contain toxic chemicals.

PIRG researchers visited numerous toy stores and other retailers to find potentially dangerous toys and identify trends in toy safety. PIRG also conducted our third survey of online toy retailers. Key findings include:

Choking Hazards
Choking on small parts, small balls and balloons remains a leading cause of toy-related deaths and injuries. At least 140 children choked to death on children’s products between 1990 and 2002, a rate of about 12 deaths a year. Our researchers found:

• Manufacturers and retailers continue to sell toys that have small parts but are not labeled with the statutory choke hazard warning.

• Toy manufacturers are over-labeling toys by placing choke hazard warnings on items that do not contain small parts. We are concerned that this will diminish the meaning of the labels, making them less useful to parents.

• Retailers are doing a better job of placing choke hazard labels on bins in which toys with small parts are sold, as required by law.

• Balloons are still manufactured and marketed in shapes and colors attractive to young children and often sold in unlabeled bins.

Strangulation and Other Hazards 
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has set safety standards to prevent strangulation by cords and elastics attached to toys as well as eye and other injuries from toys that are projectiles. These standards and other ASTM standards are enforceable by CPSC. PIRG researchers found:

• The popular yo-yo water ball poses particular hazards to young children, including strangulation and other injury to the eyes, neck and face.

• PIRG researchers found one toy with a long elastic cord and bead at the end, which may pose a strangulation hazard to small children.

• Manufacturers continue to market cheap dart guns and bow and arrow sets that include hard projectiles with flimsy suction cup tips that easily pop off.

Loud Toys
Almost 15 percent of children ages 6 to 17 show signs of hearing loss, according to a 1998 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. ASTM promulgated a new acoustics standard for toys in November 2003, setting the loudness threshold for most handheld toys at 90 decibels; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that prolonged exposure to sounds at 85 decibels or higher can result in hearing damage. PIRG researchers found:

• Several toys currently on toy store shelves may not meet the new ASTM standards for appropriately loud toys once they are implemented.

• Several toys currently on toy store shelves exceed 100 decibels when measured at close range.

Toxic Toys
In addition to posing choking and other hazards, toys can expose children to dangerous chemicals. PIRG researchers found:

• PIRG surveyed more than 40 toy manufacturers and book publishers about their use of phthalates in children’s toys and other products. Of those who responded, most reported that they have stopped using phthalates in teethers, mouthing toys and other toys and products intended for children under three, although several admitted that toys for older children may contain these chemicals.

• Manufacturers are selling play cosmetic sets that include nail polish containing toxic chemicals, such as xylene and dibutyl phthalate.

• Tests have shown popular polymer clays used for crafts, such as Fimo and Sculpey brands, contain up to 14 percent phthalates by weight and may expose children, as well as adults, to dangerous levels of phthalates through inhalation and ingestion.

Purchasing Toys On The Internet
Increasingly, parents are turning to the Internet as a convenient way to shop for toys, especially during the busy holiday shopping season. PIRG researchers conducted its third annual survey of online toy retailers, finding that more online toy retailers than ever before are displaying some sort of choke hazard warning on at least some of their toys—although mandatory requirements are still necessary. Specifically:

• One-third of online retailers surveyed (13/41) displayed some sort of choke hazard warning next to toys that otherwise by law require such labeling on their packaging, although most retailers do not display these warnings consistently on their Web sites.

• Four online toy retailers use the statutory choke hazard warning on their Web sites., and six additional retailers use the statutory language but do not include the statutory warning symbol .

Since CPSC has yet to require online retailers to include choke hazard warnings on their Web sites., however, the majority of retailers still do not include choke hazard warnings next to products that otherwise legally require this labeling. Other gaps identified in the survey:

• Of the retailers surveyed, only half (20) allow consumers to shop for toys by age group. Of these 20 Web sites., six post or direct parents to toys that are not age-appropriate.

• Eleven of the online retailers provide no manufacturer age recommendations for the toys we surveyed.

Recommendations

To consumers and parents: Be vigilant this holiday season and remember that:

• The CPSC does not test all toys.

• Not all toys available meet CPSC regulations.

• Toys that meet all CPSC regulations may still pose hazards, ranging from choking and hearing loss to chemical exposure.

• Online toy retailers do not have to provide the same safety warnings that otherwise are legally required on the packaging of toys sold in stores.

• Be aware of “hand-me-down” toys. Keep younger children away from toys with small parts designed for their older siblings.

To the CPSC:

• Reexamine the parameters by which toys are judged for age appropriateness.

• Enlarge the size of the small parts test tube and require that rounded toys meet the same choke hazard standards as small balls.

• Enforce the new ASTM acoustics standards for loud toys and consider strengthening the standards to reduce the sound threshold for handheld toys from 90 decibels to 85 decibels.

• Require manufacturers of the popular yo-yo water ball to label the toy with warnings about potential strangulation and other bodily injury.

• Require online toy retailers to display safety warnings otherwise required by law on toy packaging on their Web sites.

• Require manufacturers to label toys, not merely packaging, with manufacturer identification.

• Ban phthalates in toys and other products intended for children under five.

To toy manufacturers:

• Aim for 100 percent compliance with toy regulations.

• Use statutory choke hazard warnings on retail toy Web sites.

• Put manufacturer identification on toys, not just packaging.

• Do not make handheld toys that produce sounds louder than 85 decibels.

• Do not manufacture and market balloons for children under eight years old.

• Cease using phthalates in products intended for children of any age and label products PVC and phthalate-free.

To toy stores and online toy retailers:

• Clearly label bins containing small toys, or the toys within the bins, with appropriate warnings.

• Consider the height of bins containing toys with small parts. Make sure they are high enough that children under three cannot reach them.

• Make sure all balloons are packaged with a statutory warning. Never place loose balloons in bins. Do not sell balloons aimed at an age-inappropriate audience.

• Display mandatory choke hazard warnings next to toys with small parts, small balls, and balloons sold on Web sites.

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