For almost 30 years, U.S. PIRG Education Fund has conducted an annual survey of toy safety, which has led to an estimated 150 recalls and other regulatory actions over the years, and has helped educate the public and policymakers on the need for continued action to protect the health and wellbeing of children.
Among the toys surveyed this year, we found numerous choking hazards and five toys with concentrations of toxics exceeding federal standards. In addition to reporting on potentially hazardous products found in stores in 2014, this installment of the report describes the potential hazards in toys and children’s products.
The continued presence of these hazards in toys highlights the need for constant vigilance on the part of government agencies and the public to ensure that children do not end up playing with unsafe toys.
Standards for toy safety are enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Safety standards include limits on toxics in children’s products, size requirements for toys for small children, warning labels about choking hazards, measures to keep magnets and batteries inaccessible, and noise limits.
U.S. PIRG Education Fund staff examined hundreds of toys to confirm that they are safe. We discovered that unsafe toys remain widely available. The problems we found include:
- Lead. Childhood exposure to even low levels of lead can undermine development, damaging academic achievement and attentiveness. We found unsafe levels of lead in one set of play sheriff and police badges. (More details and photos of all unsafe toys can be found in Appendix A.)
- Chromium. Skin contact with chromium can cause severe allergic reactions including skin redness, swelling and ulcers. Chromium compounds are also known to cause cancer. This year, lab tests revealed that a tambourine marketed to children ages two and older contained chromium at nearly 10 times the legal limit.
- Phthalates. Exposure to phthalates at crucial stages of development may harm development of the male reproductive system and is linked to early puberty. Lab tests confirmed that several items purchased by our shoppers contained high levels of banned phthalates. Those items include a rubber duck, plastic-covered hairclips, and a Dora the Explorer backpack.
- Small parts are pieces that might block a child’s airway. Children, especially those under age three, can choke on small parts. Our shoppers purchased a set of foam blocks marketed to children two and up that contained multiple small parts that fit into a choke test cylinder. We also identified multiple toys containing near-small parts, which are pieces that almost fit into the choke tube and can be a choking hazard.
- Small balls less than 1.75 inches in diameter represent a choke hazard for children three years old and younger. We found small balls that were not labeled with the appropriate choke hazard warning. We also remain concerned about other small, rounded toys, such as toy food, that present the same choke hazard as small balls but are not labeled as a hazard.
- Balloons are easily inhaled in attempts to inflate them and can become stuck in children’s throats. Balloons are responsible for more choking deaths among children than any other toy or children’s product. As in past years, we continue to find balloons on store shelves marketed to children under eight.
- Magnets. When two or more powerful magnets are swallowed, they can have fatal health consequences as their attractive forces draw them together inside the body, perforating intestinal walls. Our shoppers purchased small, high-powered magnets, despite their being recalled by the CPSC.
- Batteries. When batteries are ingested, chemical reactions can burn through the esophagus and blood vessels, causing fatal internal bleeding. Our shoppers purchased a toy whale that contains batteries that are accessible to small children and are nearly small enough to constitute a choke hazard. The toy has been recalled in Australia because small children can easily remove the batteries.
- Excessive noise. Excessive noise exposure can lead to hearing loss. This is especially problematic for young children: Hearing loss at an early age has ramifications for speech development. This year, our shoppers found toys that are loud, though not necessarily in violation of federal limits.
Despite recent progress in making toys safer, the findings of our 2014 investigation, as well as recent recalls and legal actions against importers, highlight the need for continued attention to shortcomings in existing standards and vigilance on the part of the shopping public. To keep children safe from potentially hazardous toys, there is still more to do.
Policymakers should continue building upon recent progress in the strengthening of toy safety standards. The CPSC should:
- Continue to vigorously enforce the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act’s mandatory standards for toys, including strict limits on lead and lead paint in any toys, jewelry or other articles for children under 12 years;
- Vigorously enforce the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act’s permanent ban on the use of three specific phthalates in all toys and children’s products;
- Upgrade the interim ban on three additional phthalates into a permanent prohibition and expand it to include additional phthalates;
- Enlarge the small parts test tube to be more protective of children under three;
- Consider extending the standard for toys with spherical ends to apply to toys intended for children under six years old instead of under four years;
- Change the small-ball rule to include small round or semi-round objects, and not just “balls” in the strictest definition, since these toys pose the same hazards as small balls (this is especially true of rounded toy food, since it is “intended” to be eaten);
- Enforce the use of the United States’ statutory choke hazard warning label;
- Continue to enforce CPSC rules requiring online warning labels; and
- Fully enforce sound and battery standards.
Parents can also take steps to protect children from potential hazards. We recommend that parents:
- Shop with U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Toy Safety Tips, available at toysafetytips.org.
- Examine toys carefully for hazards before purchase – and don’t trust that they are safe just because they are on a store shelf.
- Report unsafe toys or toy-related injuries to the CPSC at www.saferproducts.gov.
- Subscribe to government announcements of recalled products at www.recalls.gov.
- Remember, toys on our list are presented as examples only. Other hazards may exist.
For toys you already own:
- Remove small batteries if there is any question over their security or inaccessibility and keep them out of reach of children;
- Remove batteries from or tape over the speakers of toys you already own that are too loud; and
- Put small parts, or toys broken into small parts, out of reach. Regularly check that toys appropriate for your older children are not left within reach of children who still put things in their mouths.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Elizabeth Ridlington is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. She focuses primarily on global warming, toxics, health care and clean vehicles, and has written dozens of reports on these and other subjects. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Harvard with a degree in government. She joined Frontier Group in 2002. She lives in Northern California with her husband and son.
Tom Van Heeke
Senior Director, Federal Consumer Program, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Ed oversees U.S. PIRG’s federal consumer program, helping to lead national efforts to improve consumer credit reporting laws, identity theft protections, product safety regulations and more. Ed is co-founder and continuing leader of the coalition, Americans For Financial Reform, which fought for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, including as its centerpiece the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He was awarded the Consumer Federation of America's Esther Peterson Consumer Service Award in 2006, Privacy International's Brandeis Award in 2003, and numerous annual "Top Lobbyist" awards from The Hill and other outlets. Ed lives in Virginia, and on weekends he enjoys biking with friends on the many local bicycle trails.