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Parents urged to examine toys this holiday season

Toxic ingredients, choking hazards, privacy concerns among this year’s toy warnings

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston), left, and Abe Scarr, Illinois director of the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, and Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, are standing at a table looking at children’s “slime” and other toys.
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston), left, and Abe Scarr, Illinois director of the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, and Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, look at children’s “slime” and other toys that could pose hazards.
Stephanie Zimmermann

Each holiday shopping season for 34 years, consumer advocates have warned about potentially dangerous toys that can poison, choke or otherwise harm small children.

The good news: Hazards in children’s playthings have declined sharply in recent years.

The flip side is that dangerous toys and children’s products remain easily available on secondary online marketplaces where inventories aren’t watched as closely as in retail supply chains.

“Toy safety has improved remarkably over the past several decades but hazards still exist,” said Abe Scarr, Illinois director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, which compiled the 34th annual “Trouble in Toyland” report.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 strengthened regulations of lead and phthalates and imposed new testing requirements for certain types of children’s products.

Even so, the federal government estimates 226,100 children wound up in emergency rooms in 2018 due to toy-related injuries.

“We have to be vigilant. Kids can’t,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said at a press conference Tuesday highlighting the report.

Here are some hazards parents should consider:

  • Shared toy boxes. Very young children can be at risk if they play with older siblings’ toys. If a toy part can fit through an empty toilet paper tube or small parts testing tube, it can choke a child under age 3. “It’s not about how smart their child is,” said Dr. Elizabeth Powell, attending emergency medicine physician at Northwestern’s Lurie Children’s Hospital.
  • Uninflated balloons or pieces of popped balloons. Those shredded pieces can cover a small child’s airway if ingested.
  • Toys with loud noise. Researchers for the PIRG report found two toys on the market that exceeded recommended decibel levels for young children’s developing ears.
  • Toys meant for adults. These don’t have to conform to regulations for kids’ toys. In 2017, PIRG researchers found high lead levels in two fidget spinners marketed to adults.
  • Powerful magnets. Often found in building sets or magnetic sculpting toys marketed to adults, these tiny magnets, if ingested by a young child, can clamp together inside the intestines, creating a potentially life-threatening situation.
  • Toxic materials. Lead and cadmium have both been found in tests of cheap kiddie jewelry over the years. PIRG researchers found boron in four “slime” toys that tested at levels above European Union thresholds for boron. (Boron is not regulated in U.S. toys.)
  • Privacy issues. Some “smart toys” require children to talk into a voice recorder, which raises potential privacy issues, says Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, whose office issued a companion report. “They’re listening all the time. Kids are kids and they can disclose all sorts of information.”

Parents should be wary of hand-me-down toys or children’s products for sale on secondary marketplaces, where recalled items are frequently sold, said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Chicago-based Kids in Danger.

Last summer, the Sun-Times easily found recalled infant inclined sleepers for sale on Facebook Marketplace, eBay and Craigslist garage sale listings; inclined sleepers have been implicated in at least 73 baby deaths nationwide.

“You assume that these products are safe or they wouldn’t be out there” on online platforms, Cowles said.

She urged manufacturers to put the same amount of effort into publicizing recalls as they do marketing products in the first place.

Consumers can check recalls or report their own experiences with unsafe items at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website, SaferProducts.gov.

In a statement, industry group The Toy Association urged parents and caregivers “to always shop at reputable stores and verified online retailers and to exercise caution when buying toys from flea markets, unverified sellers on online marketplaces, garage sales, etc., as these vendors may not be monitoring for recalled products or might not be selling legitimate toys that comply with strict U.S. laws.”

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston), who chairs the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, said keeping families safe is a bipartisan issue.

The House passed legislation in September aimed at preventing furniture-related tip-over deaths, which have claimed the lives of 556 children between 2000 and 2018. It’s now awaiting action in the Senate.

“These are not partisan issues. This is about child safety,” Schakowsky said.

Acting CPSC Chairman Robert Adler said the commission “takes this report seriously.”

“We share a common goal of keeping American families safe this holiday season and all year long,” Adler said.