9 Toys to Avoid This Holiday Season

Last Updated Dec 2, 2010 11:01 AM EST

In its annual report "Trouble in Toyland," the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, reminds us that hazards for kids lurk among the glittery arrays on store shelves. Although Congress strengthened consumer product safety legislation in 2008 after a series of toy recalls, PIRG's researchers still were able to identify toys that pose dangers to kids. Toys can poke and scrape and cut, but chief among the concerns of PIRG researchers this year were items containing lead, phthlates and other toxic metals restricted by the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. Also, because choking is still the leading cause of toy-related deaths, they examined playthings that could pose such a threat.
Researchers fanned out to national chain stores in September and October to find potentially dangerous toys. They also examined recalls and other regulatory actions of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to get a sense of the larger picture. What they found:

Lead. Although the law limits the amount of lead in toys because of the damage it can do to children's brains and nervous systems, the product safety commission still had to recall more than a half million toys and other children's products for violations in the last year. PIRG researchers found two examples of toys that exceeded the law's lead paint standards. Although the law sets a standard for lead in surface coatings (90 parts per million), PIRG's report warns that that scientists have not identified a safe level of lead exposure for children.
Princess Expressions Tiara and Jewelry Set, sold by Kmart, with 87 parts per million of lead. does not violate the law's standard but comes close.

Monkey in Banana, sold by Uncle Fun, exceeded the lead standard on the surface of the banana.

Phthalates. Several studies have indicated that these chemicals can cause reproductive defects, hasten puberty and cause premature infant deliveries. The 2008 law currently bans several varieties. Yet PIRG found two products that contained them:

Baby Doll, sold by Uncle Fun, is a so-called mouthing toy for which phthalates are regulated. Yet the face contained two different kinds.

Dora the Explorer backpack, sold by Claire's, carried heavy amounts of phthalates not covered by the law, on its mouth.

Antimony. California, the International Agency for Research for Cancer and the European Union classify this chemical as a potential carcinogen, and in long-term studies animals that breathed very low levels suffered eye irritation, hair loss, lung damage and heart problems. The law sets a limit of 60 soluble migrated element in parts per million of toys. Yet PIRG found toys that exceeded that level:
Bright Star Travel Book, sold by Toys R Us, sports a red handle whose surface has double the law's limit for antimony.

Plastic Handcuffs, sold by Toys R Us, have double the law's limit for antimony on their surface.

Wild Ranger Toy Gun, sold by Family Dollar, registered high levels of antimony on both the silver surfaces and the handle.

Choking hazards. All toy parts must be bigger than a so-called choke test tube (for a ball 1.75 inches in diameter). However, PIRG maintains that even though some toys don't violate the letter of the law, they have parts small enough to block a child's airway. Two that were identified:
Lokmock, Baby's First Train, sold by Amazon.com, contains pegs that are about one centimeter longer than the choke tube but does not violate the law. PIRG was alerted to the toy's dangers by a consumer, however, who had to perform a Heimlich maneuver on her one-year-old after he swallowed one of the pegs.

Let's Get Building! Construction Playset (Handy Manny Big Construction Job), sold by Target, was found to be hazardous by PIRG because it contains a small warning on the back that small parts may be generated.

PIRG's list is hardly comprehensive; there are no doubt plenty of other hazardous toys on sale. To make sure what you buy is safe, follow these principles:

  • Stick to toys made with natural materials, for example, unpainted wood, cotton or wool, or items painted with nontoxic dyes or paints.
  • Avoid costume jewelry for children. It usually contains lead or other damaging chemicals.
  • Avoid toys made of PVC or brightly colored plastics.
  • Don't buy toys with small parts (anything that can pass through a toilet paper tube) for kids under 3.
  • Heed manufacturers' age-level recommendations.
  • Don't give young kids small balls or balloons because they can can completely block airways. Balls for children under six years old should be bigger than 1.75 inches in diameter.
Finally, check for recent toy recalls at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. You can sign up for email alerts that will tell you when any toy is banned.