These days, we can mostly expect that toys sold on store shelves are tested to meet adequately strict safety standards — but that hasn’t always been the case. In 2007, toys with beloved childhood icons like Thomas the Tank Engine and Elmo were recalled because they contained excessive levels of lead. Another toy, when swallowed, created a toxic drug; yet another posed serious hazards due to strong magnets that could tear a child’s stomach lining if two or more pieces were swallowed.

So it’s worth taking a moment this week to celebrate the anniversary of the passage of the landmark Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008. In passing this law, Congress made the previously voluntary standard for toys, ASTM F963, mandatory, and also strengthened the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).  In the wake of a year of record toy recalls, the CPSIA created better safety standards for toys, and required that the toys be tested to ensure that they meet the standard.

While some toy makers may have followed the voluntary toy standard before the CSPIA became law, the safety rule were not required to be complied with until the 2008 law took effect.  Significantly, testing to the standards was not required — which was the problem with the trains and other toys with high lead levels. The comprehensive F963 toy safety standard is a living standard designed to prevent injuries related to the construction of a toy. It addresses electrical and mechanical hazards of toys, packaging and toy chests and includes sections for prevention of choking, lacerations, strangulation, suffocation, falls, burns, poisoning, eye injuries…you get the idea. Toy makers must also comply with developmental age grading and limit toxic metals in the surface coating of children’s products, including lead, antimony, and cadmium. These requirements were all made mandatory by the now 5 year old CSPIA, preventing innumerable injuries and toxic exposures to children. What is so important is that safety has been prioritized at earlier stages in the supply chain so that are children don’t end up with toys that could potentially harm them.

Revision process allows emerging hazards to be addressed

A signature strength of the CPSIA provision addressing toy safety is that it empowers the “ASTM F15.22 Subcommittee” to propose revisions to the standard more quickly than a regulatory agency can under Administrative Procedures Act. The Subcommittee (which includes industry, consumer advocates, general public, medical and child development experts, and government) discusses, develops, and finalizes proposed revisions. The Subcommittee has already been able to make revisions to deal with emerging hazards, including ingestion of magnetic components, impaction hazards and jaw entrapment hazards. When it became apparent that small, high-powered magnets in toys posed a real danger to young children, CPSC worked with ASTM to develop voluntary standard requirements for toys containing magnets.  These requirements became part of ASTM F963, which is now a mandatory CPSC standard thanks to the CPSIA.

New tools help CPSC stop dangerous toys from reaching kids

Since the CPSIA was passed and implemented, thousands of products and millions of units of dangerous toys have been prevented from entering the United States. The CPSC has been able to intensify its screening of products since CSPIA became law, not only because it now has more resources for surveillance but also because the mandatory toy standard create new accountability measures in place to stop unsafe toys from making it to store shelves. According to the CPSC, children’s products with lead levels exceeding federal limits made up the bulk of products stopped in 2012.  Toys and other articles with small parts that present a choking hazard for children younger than 3 years old and toys and child care articles with phthalate levels in excess of federal limits were also product categories with a high number of seizures.  Together with the other provisions of the CSPIA, the mandatory toy standard gives CPSC the teeth necessary to take a big bite out of toy safety crimes, protecting children from hazardous toys before they cause injuries. (Here is a link to U.S. PIRG's Toy Safety Tips.)