Trouble in Toyland

It’s a holiday morning and kids all over the world are waking up to open their presents. Big smiles and laughter abound.  What could be wrong with this picture?

Laura Muth

It’s a holiday morning and kids all over the world are waking up to open their presents. Big smiles and laughter abound.  What could be wrong with this picture?

Unfortunately, a lot could go wrong – if the toy you bought contains unsafe levels of lead or phthalates, like the Morphobot action figure or the Dora the Explorer back pack we found on store shelves.

These two toys are just examples of many unsafe toys that Maryland PIRG found as part of our 27th annual toy safety survey, Trouble in Toyland.

The good news is that toys are a lot safer than they used to be. Thanks to decades of work by Maryland PIRG and other consumer organizations and government agencies, we’ve been able to protect America’s kids from many unsafe products.

We made a big step forward on this issue in 2008, when policymakers responded to an unprecedented wave of toy recalls by passing a law to strengthen the Consumer Product Safety Commission so it can better protect consumers.  They gave them new tools to speed up product recalls, banned toxic metals and phthalates from many types of toys and children’s products, and required mandatory testing by manufacturers.

Despite these improvements, not all toys on store shelves are tested by the Commission and parents still need to take care to seek out safe toys.  Our Trouble in Toyland survey found five major hazards in the toys we surveyed:

Choking hazards: We all know that toddlers put everything in their mouths.  Between 2005 and 2012 over 50 children choked to death on balloons, balls, toys, or parts of toys.  Choking on toys is still the leading cause of death from unsafe toys. Children under three should not play with balls or objects with a diameter of less than two inches.  A cardboard toilet paper roll is a good test – if the toy can fit inside the tube, then it’s a choking hazard.

Lead: Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that can lower IQ and cause behavioral problems. The 2008 toy safety law added tough new safety limits for lead and other metals in children’s products and the Commission this year has recalled almost 14,000 toys for violations of the new lead standards.  However, our researchers sent toys purchased at national retailers to a laboratory and found that there are still toys and children’s products on the shelves that contain lead.

Toxic Chemicals: The 2008 law also banned children’s products containing more than 1000 parts per million of phthalates, chemicals that are used to make plastic softer and have been connected to adverse reproductive and developmental health effects.  Once again, it’s children who are most vulnerable to these health effects.  However, our lab tests still found toys on the shelves that contained phthalates.

Noisy Toys: National research has shown that one in five U.S. children will have some degree of hearing loss by the time they reach age 12.  The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders advises that prolonged exposure to noise above 85 decibels will cause gradual hearing loss in any age range.  We found toys on the shelves that exceeded safe levels.  If a toy seems too loud to you, then it’s probably wise to keep it away from your kids.

Magnets: Magnetic toys such as Buckyballs are made with extremely strong magnets that can cause severe internal damage if one or more is swallowed. The Commission estimates that between 2009 and 2011 there were 1700 emergency room cases nationwide involving the ingestion of high-powered magnets. More than 70% of these cases involved children between the ages of 4 and 12. If you have these magnets in your house, please dispose of them safely.

For policymakers, the dangerous toys in our report are proof that there’s more work to be done.  Policymakers gave the Commission new tools to protect America’s children, but now it’s up them to give the Commission the funding it needs to fulfill its responsibilities.  Policymakers should also continue to overhaul U.S. toxics policy, because current laws fail to adequately regulate thousands of chemicals. 

For parents and consumers about to embark on their holiday shopping, we offer the following advice:

·      Remember that Maryland PIRG’s report includes only a sampling of potentially hazardous toys. Always examine toys carefully for potential dangers before you make a purchase.

·      Report unsafe toys or toy-related injuries to the Commission at

Consumers can also use our interactive website – – on their smartphones and home computers to keep toy safety at their fingertips.  The site features our list of dangerous toys as well as helpful tips that consumers can use while they’re shopping.


Laura Muth