By Lois Lee, MD, MPH, an emergency medicine physician at Children’s Hospital Boston.
Now that the turkey and pumpkin pie are long gone, children have turned their holiday attention to what they think matters most—toys. But as you glance over those ever- growing wish lists, how can you be sure which toys are safest for your family? Fortunately for the safety conscious gift-giver in all of us, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG) recently released Trouble in Toyland, their annual report on toy safety. This is the non-profit consumer organization’s 26th report, which for years has provided safety guidelines for consumers, as well as highlight toys currently on store shelves that could be potentially dangerous. It’s a great guide for parents, but by no means a rulebook; when shopping for your family, keep in mind that a little common sense goes a long way.
This year’s report emphasized the dangers of toxins that might be found in some children’s toys. Anyone who has ever handed an infant or toddler toy knows that it will inevitably end up in the child’s mouth. Chewing on toys is normal, but also increases the risk of dangerous exposure to toxins like lead, phthalate, and now cadmium, a heavy metal currently being used to make children’s jewelry. Exposure to these substances over time can potentially lead to future health problems, so when possible be aware of whether or not these products are used in the making of some of the toys you may be thinking about buying.
Choking hazards from small parts, balls and balloons continue to be a leading cause of toy related deaths and injuries. Other toys, like toy nails, screws or cork-shaped objects, although they may pass the size requirement, are also choking hazards because of their shape. Toys for kids under three years old are supposed to have a warning label if they present a choking hazard, but toys in open bins may not be labeled. Also, these warnings are often on the package and not on the toy itself, so once opened their safety messaging gets thrown away. And if there are older children in the home, their toys may not have a warning label at all since the toy is not intended for toddlers. In homes with kids of varying ages it’s always a good idea to check the older child’s toys and make sure nothing can break off and be a potential choking hazard for a younger brother or sister. A good rule of thumb is to take the toy, or one of its removable parts, and try to pass it through an empty toilet paper tube. If it fits through the cardboard, the toy is too small and should never be left out where the younger child can grab it.
Another toy danger that often gets ignored is loud noises. We know that exposure to loud noises, including those made by toys, can lead to hearing problems later in life. Today’s children are often exposed to a symphony of loud toys noises, like video game sound effects and those simulating phones or tools. Again, use your common sense—if a toy seems too loud for you, it is probably too loud for your child.
With the thousands of toys on store shelves this holiday season, there are plenty of safe and fun toys for the children in your life. To ensure this holiday season is a safe one, use your common sense when shopping; look and touch the toys, keep your child’s size in mind and read the label to see what the toy is made of. Knowing MASSPIRG and the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommendations helps, as does carefully reading the labels and inspecting the parts once the box is opened are all important ways of making sure your children are playing with safe toys.
Your children may think that toys are the only things that matter this time of year, but you know better. Do a little homework before hitting the sales this year and help keep your holidays injury free.