Trouble in Toyland: The 25th Annual Survey of Toy Safety

The 2010 Trouble in Toyland report is the 25th annual Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) survey of toy safety.  In this report, U.S. PIRG provides safety guidelines for consumers when purchasing toys for small children and provides examples of toys currently on store shelves that may pose potential safety hazards.


Iowa PIRG Education Fund

The 2010 Trouble in Toyland report is the 25th annual Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) survey of toy safety.  In this report, U.S. PIRG provides safety guidelines for consumers when purchasing toys for small children and provides examples of toys currently on store shelves that may pose potential safety hazards.

Over the past twenty five years, the PIRG report has identified hazards in toys and children’s products that could cause an acute injury from small parts that pose a choking hazard, to strangulation hazards from cords on pull toys, to laceration hazards from edges that are too sharp.  Our report has led to at least 150 recalls and other regulatory actions over the years, and has helped us to advocate for stronger federal laws to protect children from unsafe products.

While most product safety regulations address mechanical hazards, the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act began to address certain toxic chemicals in toys and children’s products that represent chronic hazards, such as lead and phthalates.

In April 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel – a group of three distinguished experts appointed by President Bush to evaluate the nation’s cancer program – raised the alarm about our ubiquitous exposure to toxic chemicals. “The American people – even before they are born – are bombarded continually,” the panel wrote.[1] In effect, our lives have become a giant, uncontrolled experiment on the relationship between toxic chemicals and our health.

American children today grow up surrounded by synthetic chemicals. Their food containers are made with plastic. Their homes and yards are treated with pesticides. Their families use cosmetics and personal-care products that contain hundreds of manufactured additives. The furniture and electronics in their homes contain flame retardant chemicals.

As their minds and bodies grow and develop, children are particularly vulnerable to chemicals that could affect proper development. Because children have a natural tendency to touch and mouth objects as a way of exploring the world around them, harmful chemicals can leach out of these products, enter their bodies and cause health problems.  Chemicals have become such a close part of our lives that scientists can find more than 100 industrial chemicals and pollutants in the bodies of every mother and child.[2]

There are now more than 83,000 industrial chemicals on the market in the United States.[3] But very little is known about most of the chemicals in commerce. The health effects of almost half of the major industrial chemicals have not been studied at all.[4]

In 2008, Congress responded to an unprecedented wave of recalls of toys and other children’s products by passing the first major overhaul of the Consumer Product Safety Commission since it was established during the Nixon Administration.  By passing the landmark Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) in August 2008,[5]  Congress not only expanded the agency’s budget, it also gave the CPSC more tools to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable and speed recalls, moved toward limiting toxic lead and phthalates in certain toys and children’s products, and greatly improved import surveillance.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, together with stronger enforcement from the CPSC, has made good steps in the right direction toward reducing mechanical toy hazards like choking, and chemical hazards from lead and phthalates in certain products. However, there are tens of thousands of toxic chemicals that are still not regulated for the many uses in our children’s lives.

In researching the report, we visited numerous national chain toy stores and other retailers in September and October 2010 to identify potentially dangerous toys. We analyzed CPSC notices of recalls and other regulatory actions to identify trends in toy safety.  This year, we focused our investigation on hazards from toys and other children’s products that contain the toxic chemicals lead and phthalates, and other metals restricted by the CPSIA.  Because choking continues to be the leading cause of death related to toys, we have also identified toys that may pose a choking hazard to children.

Our key findings include:

Lead in Toys:

Exposure to lead can affect almost every organ and system in the human body, especially the central nervous system. Lead is especially toxic to the brains of young children.

Lead has no business in children’s products, whether in paint or coatings or in metal toys, jewelry or other children’s products (vinyl bibs, lunchboxes, etc). The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act bans lead except at trace amounts in paint or coatings (90 ppm limit as of August 2009), and in any toys, jewelry or other products for use by children under 12 years (300 ppm limit as of August 2009, and 100ppm by August 2011).

According to our analysis of CPSC recalls over the past twelve months, CPSC has recalled more than half a million toys or other children’s products for violations of the lead paint standard. The CPSC has recalled an additional 392,000 toys and other children’s products for violation of the 300 ppm lead standard.

Some children’s toys and jewelry may contain unacceptable levels of lead.  We found toys and other children’s products that may exceed the CPSIA’s lead paint standards.

Phthalates in Children’s Products:

Numerous scientists have documented the potential health effects of exposure to phthalates in the womb or at crucial stages of development. U.S. EPA studies show that the cumulative impact of different phthalates leads to an exponential increase in associated harm.  According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), levels of phthalates found in humans are higher than levels shown to cause adverse health effects.  The data also show phthalate levels are highest in children.

Section 108 of the CPSIA bans toys containing three classes of phthalates for all children, and bans toys containing three more phthalates if they can be put in younger children’s mouths.  This provision went into effect in February 2009.

This year, we found two products that laboratory testing showed to contain levels of phthalates that may exceed limits allowed by the CPSIA.

Choking Hazards

Choking on small parts, small balls and balloons remains a leading cause of toy-related deaths and injuries.  Between 1990 and 2009, at least 198 children died after choking or asphyxiating on a toy or toy part; two children died in 2009 alone.

The law bans small parts in toys for children under three and requires an explicit, prominent warning label on toys with small parts for children between the ages of three and six.  In addition, balls with a diameter smaller than 1.75 inches are banned for children under three years old.[6]

Although most toys on store shelves are safe, there are still some toys that may pose choking hazards.  Specifically:

  • Our analysis of recalls and other actions taken by the CPSC[7]  In the past year, 5.8 million toys and other children’s products have been recalled in the U.S and Canada due to choking hazards. from October 1, 2009- October 30, 2010 revealed that choking hazards were the leading cause of such actions.
  • Some toys may pose a choking or suffocation hazard even if they meet the letter of the law. We continue to find toys with small parts that just barely met the CPSC standard. We recommend making the test for small parts more protective of children under three.  CPSC also should consider special labeling for toys shaped like corks or toy nails, which pose special suffocation risks because of their shape.
  • This year, we were alerted by parents who had to administer the Heimlich maneuver on their one year old child to prevent him from choking on one such small part, a small peg in a train set labeled for children over one year old that was about an eighth of an inch longer than the small part test.


For Policy Makers:

  • Congress must ensure that the CPSC’s increased budget authorizations for the next five fiscal years are fully funded in appropriations, and continue vigorous oversight of implementation and enforcement of the new law.
  • Manufacturers should be required to provide all hazard and health-impact information to the state and federal government so agencies can begin to assess the thousands of chemicals currently on the market for which little or inadequate data are available.
  • The federal government must act based on the overwhelming weight of evidence showing that some chemicals might harm human health, and phase out dangerous chemicals.
  • Manufacturers should be required to label products with the names of these chemicals in order to allow parents to choose less toxic products.

For the CPSC:

  • CPSC should review and where necessary, expand its definition of a “small part” or “small toy” to include parts and toys that are larger than the current standard but have been shown to pose a choking hazard to children.
  • CPSC should continue its work to implement and enforce the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act’s provisions.
  • CPSC should vigorously enforce the CPSIA bans on toxic chemicals in all toys and products for children.
  • CPSC must continue to implement all rules required under the new law and must ensure that new third-party testing programs meet the new law’s standards. As the CPSC implements the CPSIA- mandated publicly-accessible hazards database requirement, it must make sure that it provides the information consumers need to make informed choices in the marketplace.

For Consumers

Be vigilant this holiday season, and remember:

  • The CPSC does not test all toys, and not all toys on store shelves meet CPSC standards.
  • There is no comprehensive list of potentially hazardous toys.  Examine toys carefully for potential dangers before you make a purchase.  Shop with U.S. PIRG’s Toy Safety tips available at www.