With recalls of more than 25 million toys in the past year, toy safety is at the top of every parent's list. But with a little preparation, no aisle in FAO Schwarz or Toys "R" Us should leave you stumped.
Since most toys are made of plastic, familiarizing yourself with the basic characteristics of the different types of plastics would help you avoid the hazardous ones from the start. According to Cookie magazine, toys made of plastics #2, #4 and #5 are the safest, longest-lasting items, while those made of #3, #6 and #7 tend to break down easily and expose kids to potentially harmful chemicals.
You can tell which type of plastic a toy is made of by turning it over and looking at the bottom, where the symbol is usually stamped. If you can't find this information on the toy or on its package try calling the manufacturer or visiting the company's Web site for more information.
High-quality plastics aside, unpainted hard wood is one of the best materials for toys, since you can be sure it has no lead paint or toxic glues.
It is also wise to scout for toys labeled "Made in USA" and "Nontoxic." Don't settle for items that carry only one of the labels. Buying hand-made toys from small manufacturers is another good idea, because you can easily find a phone number to call and get a live human being to answer your questions.
If you feel like going the extra mile, consider buying toys made in Germany (look for the "GS" safety mark) and other European countries, which often have higher safety standards than the U.S. does. Some European toy companies are Playmobil, Lego and Ravensburger.
To reduce the chance of friends and family members giving your kids potentially unsafe toys, tell them that the best gifts are books. You can create a book "Wish List" at Amazon.com, making it easy for them to avoid buying books your children already have.
For complete peace of mind, Cookie recommends visiting www.healthytoys.org. This Web site is managed by The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., and has tested over 1,500 toys for lead and harmful chemicals.
By Marshall Loeb