Unsafe Toys: Holiday Toy Safety

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The Problem of Unsafe Toys

The holiday gift-giving season is nearly here, and shoppers are hitting the stores for children’s gifts. In the United States in 2007, over 170,000 children under age 15 were treated in emergency rooms for toy-related injuries, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Unsafe toys fall into three categories: toxic toys (especially toys containing lead), toys that can damage hearing, and toys that pose a choking hazard. Choking hazards apply mainly to children under age three, while the other two hazards can be dangerous to children of any age.

Buy Age Appropriate Toys

Toys are generally labelled with the age group for which they are intended. Consumers are sometimes tempted to give a toy to a child younger than the indicated age group. Remember that toys are tested in supervised environments, and help make sure the toys you give are safe by following the age guidelines.

For children under age three, avoid any toy with sharp edges or points. For older children’s toys, make sure they are not constructed of brittle plastic that can break, creating sharp edges. Toy guns should have bright coloration to make it obvious that they are not real weapons.

Choking hazards

Any object under 1.75 inches (4.5 cm) diameter poses a choking hazard to children under age three, since they tend to explore the world by putting things into their mouths. This is about the width of a toilet paper tube. Watch out for balls as well as cylinders. If it can fit in a toilet paper tube in any direction, it could cause choking.

Toxic Toys

Be sure toys you give as gifts are non-toxic. Arts and craft materials should be marked with the designation “ASTM D-4236” which indicates they have been reviewed by a toxicologist.

Lead is a major toxic hazard in toys. Lead-based paint is illegal in the U.S. and most developed nations. Check the country of origin. Many toys were recalled in 2007 for containing lead-based paint, which can cause neurological problems if ingested, and most of these toys were made in developing countries, especially China.

Phthalates are plastic-softening chemicals that present another major toxic hazard. Though they were banned in 2008 in the U.S. from use in children’s products, toys should still be checked, especially if they are not new. Any item containing PVC may contain phthalates. Soft plastic bath toys are major offenders.

Noisy toys

Playthings that make loud noises are unsafe toys because they can cause permanent hearing damage. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any toy that seems too loud for your ears. Chances are that it is too loud for safe use.

There are specific guidelines for acceptable decibel levels from noisemakers. A toy used close to the ear, like a toy phone, should be no louder than 65 dB from 10 inches away. Other noisy toys should be no louder than 85 dB.

Toys that are too loud do not always need to be discarded. The batteries can be removed to silence the toy, or the speakers can be taped over to muffle the sound.

The Five Most Unsafe Toys

Avoid the following toys, considered the most dangerous by the Consumer Product Safety Commission:


Balloons are small objects and therefore present a choking hazard. Balloons are more difficult to remove from an airway than most other objects and as a result they are one of the most serious hazards for children under age three.

Small Magnets

Most small objects, when ingested, are likely to pass harmlessly through the digestive tract, but small magnets can stick to each other and trap part of the intestine between them. The resulting loss of circulation is very serious and can even result in death.

Battery Chargers and Adapters

Care should be taken with these devices because they can overheat, presenting a danger of fire and burns. They should not be used for over eight hours at time.

Toys with Small Balls or Removable Parts

Many games and toys for older children include marbles, small balls, or small removable parts which present choking hazards to younger children in the household. Be careful about choosing toys and games for older children with younger siblings.

Scooters and other riding toys

Riding toys are one of the largest causes of toy-related injuries. Falls can result in broken bones and head injuries, and since these toys are often used in the street, kids are at risk of being hit by cars. These toys should be used only under close supervision and with safety equipment such as helmets.