Group focuses on toys that may be dangerous

WASHINGTON — Holiday shoppers should look out for toy hazards such as small parts, loud sounds, soft plastics and lead contamination, consumer advocates warned Tuesday.

These dangers were highlighted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in its 24th annual "Trouble in Toyland" report, the first since sweeping consumer safety legislation went into effect earlier this year.

"This is definitely a time when people are going to be thinking about making purchases for the holidays, so we want people to be aware of these hazards," said Elizabeth Hitchcock, public health advocate for U.S. PIRG.

The organization focused on four hazards: small parts that can choke children younger than 3 years old, loud toys that can cause hearing damage, lead-tainted toys and soft plastic toys that contain chemicals called phthalates.

Hitchcock encouraged parents to use, specially designed for use with mobile phones, to look up toy hazards while they are shopping.

The Toy Industry Association responded with a statement warning parents not to be "needlessly" frightened by these types of reports, which "often ignore or misinterpret the facts."

Government safety officials assured shoppers that toys are safer this year than in previous holiday seasons.

"We feel that parents should have more confidence this year for toys than past years because we are enforcing the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act," Consumer Product Safety Commission chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum said in an interview.

On Monday, Tenenbaum told reporters that because of the new law, toy recalls have dropped from 162 last year to 38 so far this year, she said. Recalls of children's products with excessive lead levels have decreased from 85 last year to 15 this year, she said.

Choking is the No. 1 cause of toy-related deaths and injuries, according to the report. Hitchcock said not all toys bear the required choking warnings and that if a toy can fit into a toilet paper tube it is too small for children under 3.

The group is also concerned about toys that just barely meet CPSC standards on small parts. U.S. PIRG encouraged the agency to make the choking standards more strict.

"We looked at choking hazards and found some toys that violate that standard and some toys that make the case for expanding that standard," Hitchcock said.

U.S. PIRG also focused on loud toys, because nearly 15 percent of children between 6 and 17 years old show signs of hearing loss. The CPSC recently adopted new standards addressing this risk. Hitchcock said her group wanted to alert the CPSC that it was finding problems in this area.

In addition to toys such as play cell phones that are intended to be held next to the child's ear, Hitchcock noted that most noisemaking toys may pose risks because they are often held only as far away as the child's arm length.

Tenenbaum responded that her agency will continue to monitor the new standards for noisy toys. "But at this point we have really focused on lead, phthalates and just the overall safety of a product," she said.

The report does warn against lead contamination and phthalates, both of which were subject to tougher standards in the Consumer Protection Safety Improvement Act passed last year.

U.S. PIRG sent 15 children's products to an independent laboratory to test whether they contained lead or phthalates. Four were found to have excessive lead levels; two contained phthalates. For example, a children's jewelry charm made by Claire's Boutiques was 71 percent lead by weight, when the legal limit is 0.03 percent. A cloth book aimed at toddlers, "Rex and Friends," which was purchased from Toys R Us, contained 0.19 percent lead. After being notified by PIRG, Toys R Us stopped selling the book, but it is still available through other retailers. A Pretty Princess Puppy Purse from Claire's Boutiques contained 5.4 percent of one of the banned phthalates; an Elmo lunch bag made by Sassy contained 7.2 percent of another banned phthalate.

Lead poisoning can cause irreversible learning disabilities, behavioral problems and, at very high levels, seizures, coma and death.

"Protecting the safety of children is a shared responsibility and a year-round priority the Toy Industry Association, Inc. and its members," the association statement said. "Consumers have every reason to trust the safety of the 3 billion toys sold in America each year."