36th annual Trouble in Toyland report exposes risks of counterfeit and other dangerous toys

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Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG; Energy and Utilities Program Director, PIRG

With the holidays around the corner, Illinois PIRG Education Fund calls attention to toy safety concerns

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Even though legitimate toymakers deserve kudos for making many of their products safer over the years, too often, Americans end up buying dangerous toys for children for the holidays. Illinois PIRG Education Fund’s 36th annual Trouble in Toyland report shows that many of those toys are counterfeit or recalled products, but still make their way into consumers’ shopping carts.

“The handful of greedy Grinches who are putting children at risk to put more money in their pockets have hearts two sizes too small,” said Abe Scarr, Illinois PIRG Education Fund Director. “We need a concerted effort by federal regulators and toy vendors to keep dangerous toys off the market. And, while it’s not fair that gift-buyers need to keep an eye out for these counterfeit or recalled items, because of some bad actors, all of us need to do so.”

It’s not always easy to determine whether a gift is safe or not, especially online, when you can’t inspect the item and it may be mislabeled, or missing a warning, such as a recall notice. So far in 2021, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has recalled 13 toys. In addition, Illinois PIRG Education Fund researchers found two additional recalled products — a hoverboard  and a children’s watch accessory — that many would consider toys. The recalled toys posed risks including high levels of lead, potential ingestion by a child and small parts from easily broken toys.

 Here are the main categories in this year’s report:


  • Knockoff toys on the market: Knockoffs used to be found on a street vendor’s table. Nowadays, knockoffs and counterfeit toys can be bought online, often from overseas, where manufacturers don’t always follow U.S. regulations. Our researchers identified knockoff toys on the marketplace and the safety concerns they can pose to children. See our tips guide to learn how to avoid counterfeit toys.

  • Second-hand toys: People often sell their used goods online without checking to see whether they have been recalled. That can be a big problem when it comes to toys. We found previously recalled toys for sale on eBay. 

  • Choking hazards: Our researchers found discrepancies between website descriptions and warning labels for toys with small parts. Toys advertised for “age 2” had small parts that are unsafe for children under the age of 3. 

  • Noisy toys: Noisy toys are not only a nuisance in the home, but also at risk to children’s hearing. Toy researchers identified five noisy toys and tested the noise levels replicating how a child would use the toy. 

  • Smart toys: We identified privacy issues concerning smart toys looking at three categories: cameras and recording devices built into toys, unsecure mobile apps used to control toys and personalized online accounts that store data specifically about the toy and the toy user. 

“During the holidays, people are trying to express their love and appreciation with gifts, especially to the children in their lives. They should not have to worry about a gift they give being dangerous to the child. This report from Illinois PIRG will be a critical tool to make sure shoppers can avoid dangerous and sometimes deadly items,” Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky said. “PIRG’s previous 35 reports have resulted in many corrective actions by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPCS) and toy manufacturers. Quite simply, this report will save lives.”

“Recalled items should not appear on store shelves; however, they may still be available through secondhand sellers. My office’s annual Safe Shopping Guide will help shoppers avoid buying recalled products for children on their holiday lists, and it offers guidance for those who may already have a recalled item in their homes,” Attorney General Kwame Raoul said.  “I encourage parents, grandparents, guardians and anyone who is shopping for a child this holiday season to use this free guide for a safer holiday.”

“Each year, Illinois PIRG helps families focus on the safety of toys and gives them the information they need to shop safely,” stated Nancy Cowles, Executive Director of Kids In Danger, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting children by fighting for product safety. “The 2021 report shows that as our shopping patterns move more and more online, greater surveillance and enforcement by regulators is needed to keep families safe. Recalled toys still sold online through sites like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist must also be addressed with those same efforts.”

“Fake products sold by unreputable sellers have the potential to be unsafe, because they are unlikely to comply with strict product safety laws,” said Ed Desmond, executive vice president of The Toy Association, a not-for-profit trade organization. He said reputable companies test their products for compliance with more than 100 different safety standards and tests required by law. “These counterfeit toys might have small parts that can break off, may not be age-graded appropriately, or may pose other risks to children.” 

Scarr added, “It’s easy, when you’re thinking of how fun a toy can be, to overlook how dangerous it can be. We all want kids to have fun, but we also want kids to be safe. When it comes to holiday shopping, ignorance is not bliss.”