Kids love toys, and adults love giving toys to kids. But toys don't always love kids. The federal Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) oversees the safety of toys available in the U.S. and regulates more than 15,000 consumer products, including the power to recall toys deemed a risk to children's health. Toys sold in the U.S. must comply with the 1994 Child Safety Protection Act and adhere to the toy safety standards of the ASTM International, formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials.
The first step in selecting safe toys is to choose a toy that's suitable to the child's developmental level. The CPSC, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) have all published guidelines on hazards specific to each age group as well as the qualities of desirable toys by age.
Most toys carry an age-group recommendation, but it's important to remember that not all children mature according to the same schedule. A toy that is recognized as a choking hazard will be designated for children over age three, for example, but it is not a suitable toy for a four-year-old child who still places objects in his mouth on a regular basis.
The primary toy-related dangers to infants and toddlers are choking and strangulation. Avoid marbles or balls less than 1.75 inches in diameter because these can easily and quickly block the airways of a young child. Also, beware of toys meant for older children that may contain small parts, especially if younger children may come in contact with them -- if a toy or part can fit into a toilet paper tube, it can fit into a toddler's mouth.
Toddlers also like to pull, prod and twist toys as they learn and explore, says the CPSC, so check toys for sturdy construction and tightly secured eyes and noses, and make sure all parts can withstand the child's curiosity.
Latex balloons present another potential choking hazard, especially if broken or uninflated. The CPSC suggests keeping latex balloons away from children under age eight, or for parents to choose Mylar balloons instead.
Cords or ropes longer than 12 inches may present a strangulation hazard to young children, so keep them short wherever possible, especially on pull toys. Hanging mobiles should be well out of the reach of toddlers; PIRG says crib mobiles should be removed as soon as the child is able to push up onto hands and knees. Also, check the width of openings in cribs and play gyms to be sure that your child's head can't get stuck.
Remember that children's hearing is more sensitive than that of adults, so examine noise-making toys carefully before letting young children play with them. Hold the toy next to your own ear and listen to the noise. If it seems too loud to you, it's probably too loud for the child. PIRG recommends the removal of batteries or that you cover speakers with tape to lower the decibels.
Parents' groups have raised concerns about the use of chemicals called phthalates in toys, particularly in vinyl toys like teethers and bath toys. Some European countries have banned the substances, which are suspected of causing liver, kidney and reproductive damage. Many toy manufacturers have begun making "phthalate-free" or "PVC-free" products to alleviate concerns.
PIRG also urges caution to consumers who purchase toys on the Internet. While most Web-based purveyors are reputable, toys sold online may have been manufactured by companies that do not follow U.S. regulations. Also, toys sold at auction sites may have been recalled by the CPSC, or their condition may be unknown. As with all e-commerce, caveat emptor -- let the (toy) buyer beware.
www.cpsc.gov The Consumer Product Safety Commission's Web site contains month-by-month recall notices. To report a dangerous product, e-mail email@example.com or call (800) 638-2772.
www.astm.org The current standards for toy safety are available at this site. Look for F963, the Standard Consumer Safety Specification on Toy Safety.
www.ToySafety.net Operated by U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), ToySafety.net maintains tips for toy safety as well as links to other information sources.
www.babycenter.com Babycenter is a distributor of toys and other products for infants and children. The company has a medical advisory panel to review the products offered on its site.
www.aap.org The American Academy of Pediatrics Web site.
Publication date: 03/13/03