Trouble in Toyland 

Consider the lowly balloon.

Long considered a favorite childhood toy, balloons are used to decorate birthday parties and are given away to children at all types of functions. It’s just part of the innocent days of childhood, right?

Wrong. In the hands of children under age 8, balloons are potentially lethal. If you think this is just another silly scare story cooked up by a liberal media, consider this: the Georgia Public Interest Group rates the balloon as one of the most dangerous toys on the market today.

”Balloons are the No. 1 choking hazard,” says Public Interest Associate Megan Fitzgerald, who recently demonstrated the most common toy hazards at a press conference held at Memorial Health University Medical Center.

Similar demonstrations were being conducted simultaneously by other PIRG associates in Atlanta and Macon. ”Our sister organizations across the country are doing the same report,” Fitzgerald says.

That’s because PIRG wants to get the message out that deaths and injuries due to dangerous toys can be prevented. PIRG is a statewide, nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest organization that is dedicated to environmental protection, consumer rights and good government.

The toy industry is listening to PIRG. More than 120 Consumer Product Safety Commission recalls have been issued in the wake of the release of the annual report. ”There were recalls in the past year, since the 2003 report was released,” Fitzgerald says.

PIRG releases its annual report, Trouble in Toyland, just before Thanksgiving. December is the time of year when most parents are whipped up in a toy-buying frenzy.

The primary reason for concern is that hazardous toys continue to be sold, and some don’t carry warning labels.

The toys Fitzgerald uses in demonstrations were found at local stores. She says parents should do their own testing, because Georgia PIRG does not sample every toy available.

”In 2003, there were 200,000 toy-related injuries in the U.S.,” Fitzgerald says. ”One-third of these were to children under 5.

”There were 11 deaths due to toys,” she says. ”Even one toy-related death is too many, because these deaths are preventable.”

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, at least 10 children choked to death in 2003 on balloons, toys or toy parts. Toys that pose choking hazards are required by law to be labeled, but some manufacturers don’t comply.

A toy with a warning label should not be given to a child younger than 3. Parents should also watch to see that their older children’s toys don’t end up in the hands of their younger ones.

Balls for children under 6 should be more than 1.75 inches in diameter -- or too large to fit in the mouth. While latex balloons should always be avoided, Mylar balloons are a safer alternative.

It is now against the law to sell balloons in unlabeled bins. Why are balloons so dangerous?

Give a balloon to a baby and see what happens. The tied end invariably goes into the baby’s mouth.

Now imagine if the balloon burst while the baby was sucking on the tied end. It could be forced into the baby’s airway with disastrous results.

Fitzgerald says the pieces of a popped balloon also are dangerous. If they are sucked into the airway, it could be closed off, causing strangulation or suffocation.

Despite the danger, balloons are still popular. ”You will still find balloons that are marketed to children,” Fitzgerald says. ”Avoid balloons in the home if you have small children.”

PIRG researchers focus on four categories of toy dangers: toys that pose choking hazards, toys that are dangerously loud, toys that contain toxic chemicals and toys that pose strangulation hazards.

Some toys contain small parts, balls or balloons. Fitzgerald held up a miniature kitchen stove as an example.

”The salt and pepper shakers are removable, and have rounded ends,” she says. ”They are small enough that they could become lodged in the airway. The manufacturer should remove them.”

Make sure that if you buy such a toy, it is for an older child, Or simply take away the salt and pepper shakers -- or other dangerous part -- yourself.

Ironically, to avoid liability claims, some manufacturers are over labeling toys as choke hazards, even though they do not contain small parts. As a result, consumers may begin to discount the threat.

”In 1979, the CPSC banned toys for children under age 3 if any part of the goy fit into a choke test cylinder,” Fitzgerald says. ”Any toy for children under age 6 that contains things that would fit into the cylinder must display a warning.”

Choke test cylinders might be difficult to locate, but there is something that can be used instead. ”Anything that will go through a toilet paper roll is too small,” Fitzgerald says. ”It is the same size as the choke test cylinder.”

While loud toys aren’t likely to kill a child, they can cause injury. Children’s ears are more sensitive than adults’ and are more easily damaged.

Fitzgerald says some toys are so loud, they cause permanent damage. If it sounds loud to you, it’s probably too loud for the child.

”The American Society for Testing and Materials set new standards that say most toys should not produce a sound louder than 90 decibels when measured from a distance of about 10 inches,” Fitzgerald says.

Some toys exceed 100 decibels. Prolonged exposure to sounds at 85 decibels or higher can cause hearing damage.

”This children’s phone is designed to literally be put up to the ear,” Fitzgerald says. ”It is pretty loud.”

Already have a loud toy? Take the batteries out or cover the speakers with tape to make it safer.

Another area of concern is toys that contain toxic chemicals. Products that are most likely to contain toxic chemicals are play cosmetics and some art supplies.

Read the labels to determine what is in the product, or monitor children when they are using it. Fitzgerald held up a package of children’s nail polish that contains toxic chemicals.

”Kids put everything into their mouths,” she says. ”Parents should read the packaging and be very careful when buying something that is likely to go into a child’s mouth.”

The most common toxic chemicals found in toys are xylene, which is produced from petroleum, and dibutyl phthalate. The European Union has banned the use of phthalates in children’s products, but the CPSC has not followed suit.

”Many manufacturers have phased out phthalates,” Fitzgerald says. ”Some label their products as being phthalate-free.”

The CPSC also has not banned what is perhaps the most dangerous toy to be released in the past two years -- the water yo-yo. These toys have a ball at the end that can be filled with water and a long cord to swing the toy.

It is the cord that causes concern. ”The cord stretches a good 5 feet,” Fitzgerald says. ”With water at the end, it has momentum. Children probably can’t control this toy.”

Several countries have banned the toy because of incidents where it wrapped tightly around children’s necks or caused eye, face and head injuries. ”There were 400 injuries related to the water yo-yo in the U.S. last year, including 6 in Georgia,” Fitzgerald says. ”These are already banned in Great Britain.”

Georgia PIRG has called on the CPSC to ban sales of water yo-yos immediately. ”The CPSC should not wait until a child dies to protect children from the dangers posed by playing with this toy,” Fitzgerald says.

However, the water yo yos remain readily available in the U.S. ”These were all the rage with children a few years ago,” Fitzgerald says. ”They are still popular.”

Crib mobiles also can pose a strangulation hazard and should be removed before the child is 5 months old or can push up on the hands and knees. Also check openings on cribs and other furniture to make sure that a child’s head cannot be trapped.

Make sure dangling cords, such as drapery or blind pulls, are out of reach of smaller children. Any knobs or beads on a cord should be removed to prevent the cords from tangling into a loop.

Take extra care when ordering toys from the Internet. Toys sold online may be manufactured by companies that do not comply with regulations, and toys sold on discount or auction sites may have been recalled by the CPSC because they are hazardous. If you want to check out a product before buying, visit www.recalls.gov for an archive of old recalls and to sign up to receive email alerts about new recalls.

Don’t hesitate to call a manufacturer with questions or concerns. And if you find a dangerous toy -- report it.

Call the CPSC, which has the authority to issue recalls, at 1-800-638-2772 or send e-mail to info@cpsc.gov. The CPSC took action on 17 toys listed on the 2003 PIRG report.

To see the full 2004 report, visit www.toysafety.net. The site also offers guidelines for purchasing toys for small children and provides examples of toys that pose safety hazards.

”Shoppers should examine all toys carefully for hidden dangers before they make a purchase this holiday season,” Fitzgerald says. ”While most manufacturers comply with the law, parents should not assume that all toys on store shelves are safe or adequately labeled.”

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Linda Sickler

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