Child's Play

A look at the safety of today's toys.

Toy recalls have been making front page news, concerning parents about the safety of their children’s toys. While any unsafe toys are not acceptable and should be removed from the marketplace, consumers should not overreact to recent events. The bottom line is this: The United States has stringent toy safety requirements for manufacturers, and, going back several decades, the toy industry has a remarkable track record of safety for the many millions of toys sold annually.

The number of toys found to be unsafe and recalled is miniscule, compared to the number of toys sold each year. In addition, the number of injuries and illnesses in the United States resulting from unsafe toys is exceptionally low.

While retailers, manufacturers and regulators focus on eliminating the use of lead paint— and the use of lead paint has come under even greater scrutiny as a result of recent recalls— the Consumer Product Safety Commission has not received any recent reports of injuries from lead-painted toys. Of course, lead paint does not belong on toys. Its use is banned, and any toys that use lead paint should be recalled. Yet, what consumers should take away from this is that toys, regardless of where they are manufactured, are tested for lead paint (and many other things), and the overwhelming majority of children’s toys do not contain lead paint.

Toy safety issues of greater concern are high-powered magnets and choking hazards. Magnets are dangerous if they are swallowed. Magnets in different parts of a child’s intestines can attach to and block or tear the digestive tract. Mattel recalled nearly 10 million Polly Pocket magnetic play sets after three children required surgery from swallowing magnets that had dislodged from the toys.

Here again it is important to focus on the facts and not overreact. The above information does not mean that Mattel products are unsafe, that its Polly Pocket brand is unsafe or even that all toys with magnets are unsafe. I merely mention this because I have had reporters, consumers and friends ask me, “Will toy shelves soon be empty as a result of recent recalls?”

I liken this inquiry to a hypothetical scenario. Imagine Toyota recalls its 2008 Camry model, and someone asks, “Will all car dealership lots be empty this year as a result of the Camry recall?” The answer is “No.” The 2008 Camry might be affected, but none of Toyota’s other cars and trucks should be affected by the recall, nor should cars and trucks made by General Motors, Ford, Nissan, Mazda, Volkswagen, BMW and many other auto manufacturers.

The same is true regarding toys. There are seemingly countless toy manufacturers, and most manufacture multiple brands and multiple product lines within each brand. This means that there are millions of different toys in homes and schools, as well as on the shelves in stores. If one or two particular items in the Polly Pocket brand are recalled, then parents should absolutely remove those items from their children’s playrooms. However, it does not mean that the rest of the Polly Pocket brand or Mattel in general is tainted. Remember that history and statistics show that the overwhelming majority of toys sold in the United States are safe.

Another common question I hear as a result of the recent recalls is, “Should we avoid all toys made in China because they are unsafe?” Going back to my Toyota Camry hypothetical scenario, this question about toys made in China is akin to asking, “Should we avoid all foreign cars because they are unsafe?” Again, the answer is “No.”

Most of the toys sold in the United States are manufactured overseas, mainly in China. Some experts estimate that about 80 percent of the toys sold in the United States are made in China. Therefore, if you make a sweeping decision to not use or buy any toys made in China, you may become unpopular in your own home for two reasons: Your children will have to get rid of most of their current toys, and they will have a limited selection of new toys.

On a more serious note, manufacturing of toys in China is not a new phenomenon and is not the reason behind the recalls. A large number of toys sold in America have been made outside the United States for decades, and the percentage of toys sold in the United States that are manufactured overseas has been increasing every year. Because the overwhelming majority of toys sold in the United States are safe and have been for decades, the great majority of toys made in China are safe, as well.

Lastly, I have had many people ask me how they can identify and avoid unsafe toys. My answer is twofold. First, the bad news: It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to look at a toy sitting on a store shelf in the United States and be able to tell that it is unsafe. Now the good news: In order for a toy to make it to a store shelf in the United States, it must pass rigorous safety testing and meet government toy safety standards. Packaging should state that the toy meets ASTM requirements.

A toy that is so obviously unsafe that you would be able to discern its potential harm just by looking at it would never make it to a store shelf in this nation. That means that the toys you see on the shelf must have passed independent, third-party tests to meet government safety standards, and should be safe for children. Still, consumers should use common sense by confirming the packaging states that the toy meets U.S. safety standards, heeding age grading on the packaging and avoiding items that are choking hazards for young children, such as marbles and balloons.

While there may be exceptions from time to time, as recent recalls illustrate, consumers can have confidence in the reputation the United States toy industry has built in designing, developing, manufacturing, testing and distributing safe toys to hundreds of millions of children in the nation and around the world.