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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/28/2007 8:52:50 PM ET 2007-11-29T01:52:50

'Tis the season for toy giving. This year, however, is like no other. The fear of buying tainted toys is creating enormous anxiety for parents.

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“It’s reasonable for parents to be concerned about what they’re bringing home for their kids,” says toy expert Stephanie Oppenheim. “This is not a normal toy season.”

So far this year, a record 23 million toys have been recalled. And the numbers keep growing. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has indicated there may be more dangerous toys pulled off the market before Christmas.

A poll done last month by Harris Interactive showed that about 33 percent of Americans say they will be buying fewer toys this holiday season due to safety concerns, and 45 percent said they will avoid buying toys made in China. Many readers of this column have e-mailed me to say the same thing.

But buying toys made in America isn’t easy – about 80 percent of the toys sold in this country come from China – plus there is no guarantee a toy made in the U.S. is safe. It could be assembled here with imported parts that contain lead or have small parts that could choke a child.

Marianne Szymanski, publisher of Toy Tips and Parenting Hints magazine says parents don’t need to panic, because most toys on the market are safe. Chinese factories will make about 8 billion toys for sale in America this year and only 2 percent of them, she says, have been recalled.

Even so, toy buyers need to be cautious. “It’s unfortunate that so many unsafe ones have slipped through onto our store shelves this year,” says Don Mays, senior director of Product Safety Planning at Consumers Union.  “Until they tighten up the safety net in this country, it’s a buyer beware situation.”

Trouble in Toyland
Each November, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group releases its annual toy safety survey. For several years now, the news was good – toys were getting safer. Not this year. The 22nd annual “Trouble in Toyland” report lists 59 dangerous toys that do not meet U.S. standards. They have lead or other toxic chemicals, small magnets, or small parts that present a choking hazard.

“There is lead in cheap jewelry and plenty of it,” says Ed Mierzwinski, PIRG’s consumer program director. “There is lead in the paint, particularly the red or yellow paint of some cheap plastic toys. It’s also been found in lunch boxes and bibs made of vinyl.”

Toys with small magnets were responsible for more recalls this year than lead. Those 7 million Polly Pocket dolls and play sets recalled by Mattel in August had small magnets that could come loose.

These powerful magnets are especially dangerous. If they come off the toy and a toddler swallows two or more of them, they can attract each other and block or perforate the intestines. Two years ago, a toddler from the Seattle area died this way. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says at least 33 children have swallowed loose magnets and required emergency surgery.

Don’t go looking for the 2008 edition of the "Oppenheim Toy Portfolio." President Joanne Oppenheim and publisher Stephanie Oppenheim stopped the presses this year because they could not be sure the hundreds of toys they were about to recommend in their book were lead-free. The toys that made it to the winner's circle tested negative for lead content.

So this year’s Platinum Award Winners can be found online here.

“It is unconscionable that there are toys on the shelves that can pose a health hazard to our children,” Stephanie Oppenheim told me. “And until we move forward with better regulation, it’s going to be a lot like Russian roulette.”

Certified testing programs needed
“Toy givers need to remain vigilant about the often hidden hazards posed by toys on store shelves,” PIRG’s Ed Mierzwinski says. “They need to remember that no government agency tests toys before they’re out on the shelves.”

Reacting to the endless stream of recalls, manufacturers and retailers have increased safety testing. Consumer groups say these unregulated, voluntary programs are no longer sufficient. They are pushing Congress to establish an independent, third-party testing program, something like a UL label for toys.

Toy makers support legislation that would require mandatory toy testing. But the industry wants to run the testing program in labs that have been accredited by the American National Standards Institute. Consumer groups oppose the idea. Mierzwinski is very blunt about it. “I don’t trust the companies to do the tests,” he says.

What’s a parent to do?
One of the most important things you can do is sign up with the Consumer Product Safety Commission for its automatic e-mail recall alerts.

When choosing a toy, check for obvious hazards such as small parts and small magnets. Unfortunately, you can’t tell by looking if there’s lead.

Don Mays of Consumers Union, a father of two young children, urges parents to stick with the major retailers. “Based on Consumer Reports testing, we found that you are more likely to get unsafe, substandard, and sometimes even counterfeit products when you buy from dollar stores, yard sales, or flea markets.

“We also think it’s probably better to stay with the major brands,” Mays says. Although he admits, “Some of the major brands have let us down this year.”

After you buy a toy, go to the CPSC Web site and check to make sure it hasn’t been recalled. Considering how many products were pulled off the market this year, that’s a prudent thing to do.

If you’re concerned that lead might be present – in a new toy or one you already have at home – you can get a do-it-yourself test kit. Consumer Reports tested five of the kits and found that three of them, while not perfect, do detect surface lead.

If you use the Lead Check or the Lead Inspector test kits and you get a positive result, the editors say, you have a pretty clear indication that there’s lead in that toy and you should take it away from your child. 

Mierzwinski would like you to do one more thing. E-mail your lawmakers in Congress. Let them know you want more done to prevent dangerous toys from making it to market. Tell them it’s time to get the lead out!

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