Toys-R-Dangerous? What You Need to Know about Children’s Products and Recalls

Joan Dawson, Blossom Paravattil, and Megan Cole

In recent years, an increasing number of toys and products have been pulled off the shelves because they were found to be harmful to children. According to Consumers Union, toy recall levels reached a record high in 2007, with over 20 million toys recalled for having lead or other hazards. In fact, 2007 was often referred to as “the year of the recall.” This resulted in a new law to help increase toy safety. However, parents still need to be careful when they buy or use toys or children’s products, including swings, cribs, and bicycles, because they can’t count on government inspectors to ensure 100% safety.

Many children’s products were recalled in 2010. Here are just a few examples:

  • CYBEX 2.GO infant carriers: This carrier was recalled in June 2010 after reports of broken buckles. The shoulder strap slider buckle can break, posing a fall hazard to babies.
  • McDonald’s Shrek Forever After 3D collectable drinking glasses: The designs on the glasses contain cadmium. Long-term exposure to cadmium can cause health problems.
  • Target children’s belts: Target recalled Cherokee boys’ belts and Circo girls’ belts because the belt buckles contain lead levels that violate the lead standards.
  • IKEA Roller, Roman, and Roll-Up blinds: These were recalled due to reports of a 1 ½-year old who suffered near-strangulation. Strangulations can occur if the blind’s looped bead chain is not attached to the wall or the floor and a child’s neck can be entangled in the blinds.
  • Graco brand drop-side cribs: This product, made by LaJobi, was recalled due to 99 reports of drop-side incidents, including hardware breakage and drop-side detachment. The drop-side hardware can break or fail, allowing the drop side to detach from the crib. When the drop side detaches, a hazardous gap is created between the drop side and the crib mattress, where infants and toddlers can become entrapped, posing a risk of suffocation and strangulation.

Who Makes Sure That Toys and Children’s Products are Safe?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is an independent federal regulatory agency whose job is to protect the public from products that could pose electrical, chemical, or mechanical hazards. This includes toys, household items, furniture, bicycles, and many other products used by children and families.

To increase CPSC’s ability to protect the public from harmful products and toys, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) in 2008 in response to the record-high number of recalls in 2007. The law increases the budget and staffing for CPSC. It also sets new limits on harmful substances such as phthalates and lead that are sometimes in children’s toys.

Phthalates are chemicals that make plastics soft and flexible. However, phthalates are similar to hormones, and exposure may increase the risk of developmental and reproductive problems, as well as testicular or prostate cancer.

Lead exposure causes health problems, especially for young children. It can affect their developing brains and nervous systems.

Although the law intended to improve toy safety passed in 2008, pressure from toy manufacturers resulted in a delay of enforcement until February 2011 on the testing of toys and children’s products for lead and phthalates. That means that although manufacturers are supposed to be following the restrictions on lead and phthalates, federal testing to see if they are actually complying with the law will not begin until 2011.

Magnets and Toys

Magnets have been used in toys for a long time, but companies are now using smaller and more powerful magnets called “rare-earth” magnets. These magnets are found not only in toys but also in some jewelry and refrigerator magnets. If children swallow these magnets, the magnets “can attract in the body and twist or pinch the intestines, causing holes, blockages, infection, and death, if not treated properly and promptly,” according to CPSC. Symptoms include stomach pains, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. These magnets may be very small, most parents won’t even see them, and the children don’t realize what they are swallowing, so it can be difficult to diagnose.

One example is Buckyballs High Powered Magnet Sets, by Maxfield and Oberton. These were recalled in May 2010. The label on the product said the toy was made for ages 13 and up, but the product did not meet the mandatory toy standard that requires magnets not to be sold to children under the age of 14.

Lead and Toys

One of the most common reasons for recalls is the presence of lead in toys. Jewelry, bibs, vinyl lunch boxes, and clothes (zippers, snaps, and buttons) have also been found to contain lead. When young children eat or inhale lead it can cause developmental delays or learning disabilities.

Toys can be tested for lead with do-it-yourself home kits. However, CPSC warns that these kits are unreliable.

One example of a lead-related recall occurred in April 2010, when Sportime recalled sports balls. The surface paint of the sport balls contained high levels of lead, which is a violation of the lead paint standard. Also in April 2010, Discount School Supply recalled double egg shakers. The surface of the red eggs contained high levels of lead, which violated the lead paint standard.

Phthalates and Toys

Phthalates, also known as “plasticizers,” are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible, durable, and soft. Phthalates are found in many plastic products, including toothbrushes, automobile parts, tools, toys, and food packaging. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high oral doses of some phthalates have caused death in animals. Recently, researchers have been concerned that lower doses may be associated with harmful effects, too. Phthalates have been linked to hormonal and developmental problems in children. For more information about the risks, see Phthalates and Children’s Products or Phthalates Q and A.

Inflatable baseball bats made by Daiso were recalled in October 2009. These toys contained excessive levels of a phthalate known as DEHP, which violated the phthalate standard. DEHP is on the U.S. Environmental Agency’s (EPA) list of toxic chemicals and was permanently banned from children’s toys and products by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in 2008.

Other Dangers in Toys

Toys pose clear dangers when they include things such as magnets, lead, and phthalates, but toys can also be hazardous if they cause injuries such as choking, strangulation, burning, or poisoning. Many toys that pose such injuries have been recalled. Here are just a few examples of recalls in 2010 that may help you better understand what to watch out for when buying or receiving toys as gifts:

  • Beado Handheld Bead play toys were recalled in June 2010 due to plastic wires that detach from the toy, allowing the beads to slide off. The loose beads were a choking hazard to young children.
  • One Step Ahead’s children’s stacking toys were recalled in June 2010 as a result of a report of a 10-month-old child mouthing the toy’s foam material. The fabric covering the stacking ring’s center pole can come apart at the seam, exposing the foam material inside. The foam material poses choking and aspiration hazards to young children.
  • In May 2010, Remote-Controlled Helicopters were recalled by Imagine Nation Books due to 49 reports of the helicopters overheating and six reports of flames coming from the helicopters. The rechargeable battery inside the helicopters can overheat, igniting the helicopter and posing fire and burn hazards to consumers.

If you’re looking for a helpful resource, Healthystuff.org includes a list of many risky chemicals found in toys, such as cadmium, chlorine, arsenic, and mercury. Their website also includes a database with information on more than 5,000 products that have been tested by researchers and environmental health organizations. In some cases, standards exist for safe and unsafe levels of these chemicals in these toys, but the standards are not always enforced. Sometimes, you just have to use common sense: if a toy is coming apart, it may no longer be safe to play with. Children who are mouthing their toys may be better off with unpainted wood toys or stainless steel toys that do not contain batteries.

Other Unsafe Products

CPSC has jurisdiction over more than 15,000 types of consumer products used in and around the home, in sports, in recreation, and in schools. In addition to toys, these products include the following:

  • Household items, such as clothing, furniture, cookware, and electrical devices
  • Outdoor products, such as sprinklers, lawn mowers, grills, and gardening equipment
  • Sports and recreation products, such as bicycles, tents, snowmobiles, and golf carts
  • Specialty products, such as vending machines and emergency lights
  • Children’s products, such as cribs, clothing, jewelry, and strollers

What Can You Do to Keep Your Kids Safe?

1. Check to see if any of your child’s toys or products have been recalled. You can do this by visiting the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Web site at www.recalls.gov. If the toy or product has been recalled, check the guidelines for what to do next, as procedures vary. And if you find recalled products on the shelf the next time you go shopping, notify the retailer. If the toy has been recalled for lead, throw it out immediately but don’t panic. If you have purchased it recently, it may not have done any harm. If, however, your child has played with it for a while or parts of it have broken off, have a doctor test your child’s blood for lead.

2. Throw away toys that you believe may contain harmful chemicals. These would include toys with chipped paint, broken parts, or worn-down plastic. If you have any doubts, throw it away. You can, and should, clean toys regularly (with mild soap and water or diluted vinegar) in case any household dirt or dust (that might contain lead) has contaminated them.

3. Be careful which toys you buy. Just because they are for sale doesn’t mean they are safe. Many of the toys that were recalled were manufactured in China but unsafe toys can come from any place that does not carefully regulate them. If you’d like, you can try to find toys made in the USA or even make them yourself. If you do, just be sure to use materials that state they are “non-toxic.” Also, avoid buying vintage toys that may have been painted with lead-based paint. If you have any at home, store them out of reach of young children.

For more information, you may visit the following sites:

Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning

www.leadsafe.org

Consumer Product Safety Commission

www.cpsc.gov

Department of Health and Human Services

www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts13.html

www.healthystuff.org