Shopping for toys this holiday season? Here are some tips for buying safely

stockphotopro_74945GHV_no_titleLois Lee, MD, MPH works in Children’s Emergency Department Injury Prevention Program

The holiday season brings to mind visions of children excitedly tearing into wrapping paper, eager to see if they got the present they wanted. Parents look on, sharing in the moment of joy. But to make sure this is truly a happy time for the whole family, it’s up to parents and other gift-givers to make sure the toys given are safe and age-appropriate. (Read Trouble in Toyland, the 24th annual survey of toy safety by MASSPIRG, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group.)

Choking hazards from small parts, balls and balloons continue to be a leading cause of toy-related deaths and injuries. Although other toys, like the toy nails and screws or cork-shaped objects you’d find in things like toy work benches, may pass the size requirement, they can also be choking hazards because of their shape. The real danger isn’t the choking, it’s the resulting suffocation, which can lead to death unless the object is immediately removed from the child’s airway. Although toys with small parts are required to have a prominent warning label, consumer advocacy groups have found that these labels aren’t always present. Parents must carefully inspect all parts of a toy, including attached parts, that might be easily broken off and pose a choking hazard.

Magnetic toys also are a significant swallowing danger to children—and not just for toddlers. When two or more magnets are swallowed and pass into the digestive system, they can cling to each other. As they work through the intestinal tissue, they can cause a hole in the digestive tract, causing a hole in the intestines, which can lead to serious infections and even death. Parents should be wary of any toys with magnets, especially if there are young children in the household. For older children, parents should emphasize the dangers of swallowing these toys.

In addition to ingestion hazards, exposure to lead and phthalates are another potential danger to children. Last year, there was a significant amount of media attention about the lead in the paint of certain toys, many of which were made in China. Children are at risk for toxic lead exposure from ingestion of substances (like paint) that contain lead. The dangers of lead are significant, since elevated lead levels in the body can cause neurologic problems. The developing brains of children make them more susceptible to the toxic effects of lead. At this time, it’s difficult for parents to know exactly which toys may have lead paint, but they should be wary of painted toys or jewelry and be sure children aren’t putting them in their mouths.

A substance that has gotten more recent publicity concerning its probable health effects is phthalates, which are a family of chemicals that improve flexibility in plastics. Like lead, it isn’t obvious which toys contain phthalates, but parents should be aware of the potential health risks to children.

While we’re at it, here is the list of the season’s 10 most dangerous toys, and below is a video by pediatrician Claire McCarthy, MD, who gives tips for how to shop for safe toys this holiday season.

You can help report unsafe toys too. Check out this interactive smart phone Web site that lets parents and toy shoppers avoid hazards and potentially report on dangerous toys they find on store shelves.

Read this list of 10 video games to cross of your child’s gift list.