Who Makes Sure that Toys and Children’s Products are Safe?
Ensuring a child’s safety is at the forefront of every parent’s mind. Parents should not need to wonder whether store-bought toys are safe for their child. Unfortunately, seemingly harmless toys and other children’s products can pose serious health risks.
Luckily for parents, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is an independent federal regulatory agency whose job is to protect the public from electrical, chemical, or mechanical hazards in everyday products. This includes toys, household items, furniture, bicycles, and many other goods used by children and families.
Over the years, manufacturers of toys and other children’s products have followed standards for consumer safety, some mandatory and some voluntary. The voluntary standards were the result of informal agreements between industry, government, consumer groups and others. However, many companies were selling children’s toys and other products that were dangerous to children. By 2007, there were a record-high number of product recalls, many with excessive levels of lead.
In response to “the year of the recalls,” Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) in 2008. By increasing the CPSC’s budget and staffing, the CPSIA improved the agency’s ability to protect the public from harmful products and toys. The act also set new limits on dangerous substances such as lead and phthalates.
Since the passage of the CPSIA, the number of toy recalls has decreased greatly. There were 172 recalls with 19 involving lead in 2008 while there were only 24 recalls and 1 with lead in 2016.
Though the CPSC exists to promote product safety, you cannot rely only on government to protect your children. CPSC is a small agency and it often moves slowly due to industry and political opposition to its safety efforts. It is important to be aware of the major hazards that toys and children’s products can hold.
Most Common Toy Dangers
Lead exposure causes health problems, especially for young children. It can affect their developing brains and the nerves that connect the brain to the rest of the body. When young children eat or inhale lead, it can cause learning difficulties, lower intelligence, and behavior problems.
Federal health and safety agencies have been working to lower the level of lead in children’s blood. CPSIA regulations limit the total level of lead in children’s products to 100 parts per million. The paint or outer coating of a product can only have up to 90 parts per million of lead.
Lead has been one of the most common reasons for toy recalls. Jewelry, bibs, vinyl lunch boxes, and clothes (zippers, snaps, and buttons) all contained lead in the past. For example, Mars retail group recalled children’s M&M shaped earrings in late 2016 due to high lead levels.
Even if a product follows CPSC regulations, it may have high levels of lead in some accessible parts. The regulations have exceptions for products that are too difficult to make without lead, such as bicycles or electronics. Keep this in mind when letting your child use these products.
Phthalates, also known as “plasticizers,” are chemicals that make plastics more flexible, durable, and soft. They are dangerous because they can act like hormones in a person’s body. Phthalates may increase the risk of developmental and reproductive problems, as well as testicular or prostate cancer.
The CPSA currently regulates six phthalates, yet only prohibits three for all types of toys. The universally restricted phthalates are EHP, DBP, and BBP. The other phthalates, (DINP, DIDP, and DnOP) are now limited only for items that children are likely to place in their mouth. CPSIA guidelines require that children’s products have 0.1% or less of these phthalates. The CPSA calculates the level of each phthalate separately.
Many non-toy plastic products also contain phthalates including toothbrushes, tools, and food packaging. To keep your children safe, keep them from placing these items in their mouth.
For more information on phthalates, visit https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/phthalates_factsheet.html.
Manufacturers have used magnets in toys for a long time. However, companies are now using smaller and more powerful magnets called “rare-earth” magnets. These magnets are found not only in toys but also in some jewelry and refrigerator magnets. If children swallow these magnets, the magnets “can attract in the body and twist or pinch the intestines, causing holes, blockages, infection, and death, if not treated properly and promptly,” according to the CPSC. Symptoms include stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or death. These magnets may be so small that most parents won’t even notice them and the children won’t realize what they are swallowing. This makes magnet ingestion difficult to diagnose.
One example of a magnet recall is Design Idea’s 2014 recall of various refrigerator magnets. The magnets on the backside of these products easily detached from the main part of the product. When separated, children could easily swallow the magnets causing intestinal problems.
Many times, toys are made up of smaller components that can detach and pose choking risks to children. The CPSIA includes guidelines for small objects, but a product can pose an unforeseen danger when a child gets his or her hands on it. For example, Hobby Lobby recently recalled its light-up spinner toy because the battery cover easily detached and children could swallow it. Be sure to examine how each of your child’s toys may come apart. Make sure each part can stand alone safely.
Other Choking Hazards
Small parts are far from the only choking hazards for children. Others dangers include stuffing inside toy animals, yoyo strings, pompoms and the plastic packaging of toys. Remember to supervise young children during playtime and educate them about potential dangers of each item they use.
Burning/Electrical Hazards in Toys
Toys can also pose a danger to children when they have poorly made electrical components. Companies sometimes mass-produce children’s products without ensuring sound electrical mechanics. For example, Little Passports recently recalled its science kit because the battery packs overheated, endangering the children using them.
While safety standards and mandatory regulations reduce risk to children, the CPSC warns that, “adults must still be selective in purchasing toys, supervise their use at home, inspect them periodically, and repair, replace, or discard deteriorating toys.”
For more information on the dangers of electric toys, visit https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/287.pdf.
Toy chests or storage containers can be as harmful as toys themselves. These chests can fall on a child’s head or neck and injure them. Chests can also trap children and cause suffocation due to limited airflow. To provide the safest possible option to store a child’s toys, choose an opened top container or a chest with a lid support that allows the lid to stay in an open position.
What Can You do to Keep Your Kids Safe?
- Check to see if any of your child’s toys or products have been recalled. You can do this by visiting the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Web site at cpsc.gov. If the toy or product has been recalled, take the toy away from the child and see recall information for the appropriate response.
- Throw away toys that you believe may contain harmful chemicals. These would include toys with chipped paint, broken parts, or worn-down plastic. If you have any doubts about the safety of a toy, throw it away. You can, and should, clean toys regularly (with mild soap and water or diluted vinegar) to remove any household dirt or dust (that might contain lead or phthalates).
- Buy toys that are age appropriate. Do not give a toy to a child if he or she is under the printed age requirements. Keep in mind that even if a child is old enough to use the toy according to packing, he or she may not be mature enough to use it. Maturity differs between children of the same age, so consider your child’s habits before buying him or her a toy.
- Be careful which toys you buy. Just because they are for sale doesn’t mean they are safe. Many recalled toys are manufactured in China but unsafe toys can come from any place without strict regulations. If you’d like, you can try to find toys made in the USA or even make them yourself. When creating your own toys, use materials that contain the words “non-toxic” on the packaging. Also, avoid buying vintage toys that may have been painted with lead-based paint. If you have any vintage toys at home, store them out of reach of young children.
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All articles on our website have been approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.