The Trouble In Toyland

The 20th Annual Survey of Toy Safety

Toys are safer than ever before, thanks to decades of work by product safety advocates and parents and the leadership of Congress, state legislatures and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Nevertheless, as parents venture into crowded malls and browse for the perfect toy on the Internet this holiday season, they should remain vigilant about often hidden hazards posed by toys on store shelves.


Toys are safer than ever before, thanks to decades of work by product safety advocates and parents and the leadership of Congress, state legislatures and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Nevertheless, as parents venture into crowded malls and browse for the perfect toy on the Internet this holiday season, they should remain vigilant about often hidden hazards posed by toys on store shelves.

The 2005 Trouble in Toyland report is the 20th annual Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) survey of toy safety. This report provides safety guidelines for parents when purchasing toys for small children and provides examples of toys currently on store shelves that may pose potential safety hazards.

PIRG’s research focused on four categories of toys: toys that may pose choking hazards, toys that may pose strangulation hazards, toys that are excessively loud, and toys that contain potentially toxic chemicals. PIRG researchers visited numerous toy stores and other retailers to find potentially dangerous toys and identify trends in toy safety. Key findings include:

Choking on small parts, small balls and balloons remains a leading cause of toy-related deaths and injuries. Between 1990 and 2004, at least 157 children died after choking or asphyxiating on a toy or toy part; seven children died in 2004 alone. Our researchers found:

• Although most toys on store shelves are safe, PIRG researchers still found toys for children under three with small parts and toys with small parts for children under six without the statutory choke hazard warning label.

• Toy manufacturers are over-labeling toys by placing choke hazard warnings on items that do not contain small parts. This could dilute the meaning of the warning labels, making them less useful to parents. CPSC should push manufacturers to apply the choke hazard warning only when necessary.

• Mattel, a large toy manufacturer, now includes a non-statutory and vague warning on some of its toys, saying “Small parts may be generated.” If a toy contains small parts or can break easily into small parts that pose a choking hazard, the company should use the statutory warning. Toys without small parts should not include this confusing label.

• Balloons, which cause more choking deaths than any other children’s product, are still marketed specifically for children under age three (such as “Baby’s First Birthday”) and with characters appealing to children under eight years old (such as “Bob the Builder”). Toy manufacturers should not market balloons to children under age eight.

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has set safety standards to prevent strangulation by cords and elastics attached to toys. These standards and other ASTM standards are enforceable by CPSC. PIRG researchers found that the popular yo-yo water ball poses particular hazards to young children, including strangulation and other injury to the eyes, neck and face. New versions of the toy contain batteries to make the toy flash; these batteries can tear through the toy easily, posing a choking hazard if swallowed.

In June 2005, Illinois became the first state to ban this toy. At the federal level, the CPSC should ban all sales of yo-yo water balls and similar toys in the United States.

Almost 15 percent of children ages 6 to 17 show signs of hearing loss, according to a 1998 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In November 2003, ASTM promulgated a new acoustics standard for toys, setting the loudness threshold for most handheld toys at 90 decibels; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that prolonged exposure to sounds at 85 decibels or higher can result in hearing damage. PIRG researchers found:

• Several toys currently on toy store shelves may not meet the ASTM standards for appropriately loud toys.

• Several toys currently on toy store shelves exceed 100 decibels when measured at close range.

CPSC should enforce the ASTM acoustics standards for loud toys and consider strengthening the standards to reduce the sound threshold for hand-held toys from 90 decibels to 85 decibels. Toy manufacturers should go above and beyond the standards and not make hand-held toys that produce sounds louder than 85 decibels.

Some toys can pose hidden hazards, exposing children to dangerous chemicals that are linked to serious health problems. PIRG researchers found:

• Manufacturers are selling play cosmetic sets that include nail polish containing toxic chemicals, such as toluene and xylene. Since children often put their hands in their mouths, nail polish applied to fingernails offers a direct route of exposure.

• Even though the European Union has banned or imposed wide restrictions on the use of six phthalates in toys and childcare products, some manufacturers of children’s products continue to use phthalates in toys for the U.S. market. Phthalates, a class of chemicals used to “plasticize” or soften otherwise hard PVC plastic material, have been linked to reproductive defects and other health problems.

• In response to consumer concern about phthalates, some manufacturers are labeling their products as “phthalate-free.” The U.S. government, however, does not regulate the “phthalate-free” label or ensure that products labeled “phthalate-free” actually do not contain phthalates. To test the reliability of the “phthalate-free” label, PIRG commissioned laboratory tests of eight soft plastic toys labeled as not containing phthalates. Of the eight toys tested, six contained detectable levels of phthalates.

CPSC should ban phthalates in toys and other products intended for children under five and work with the Federal Trade Commission to take immediate action to ensure that toys labeled “phthalate-free” do not contain phthalates. In addition, CPSC should team up with the Food and Drug Administration to require manufacturers to stop using toluene, xylene, dibutyl phthalate, and other toxic chemicals in nail polish marketed for children.

Many toys are approved for use by young children but require additional safety precautions as well as adult supervision. Non-motorized scooters and other riding toys, for example, cause more toy-related injuries every year than any other category of toy. Electric toy minimotorcycles and gasoline-powered mini-motorcycles (“pocket bikes”) are likely to be popular purchases this shopping season. Children are vulnerable to a wide range of injuries when using both motorized and non-motorized riding toys; parents should supervise their children closely when they use these toys and outfit them with the proper safety equipment.

Increasingly, parents are turning to the Internet as a convenient way to shop for toys, especially during the busy holiday shopping season. The CPSC, however, has yet to require online retailers to include choke hazard warnings on their websites. PIRG conducted its fifth annual survey of online toy retailers, finding that some online toy retailers are voluntarily displaying some sort of choke hazard warning for at least some of their toys-although mandatory requirements are still necessary. We found:

• One-third (35%) of the 37 online retailers surveyed display some sort of choke hazard warning next to toys that otherwise require such labeling on their packaging or point of sale, although most retailers do not display these warnings consistently on their websites.

• Of the retailers surveyed, just over half (20) allow consumers to shop for toys by age group. Of these 20 websites, four post or direct parents to toys that are not age-appropriate.

• Nine of the retailers provided no manufacturer age recommendations for the toys we surveyed.

CPSC should require online toy retailers to display on their websites the safety warnings otherwise required by law to appear on toy packaging. Toy manufacturers should take the initiative and use statutory choke hazard warnings on retail toy websites.

Be vigilant this holiday season and remember:

• The CPSC does not test all toys, and not all toys on store shelves meet CPSC standards.

• Online toy retailers do not have to provide the same safety warnings that otherwise are legally required on the packaging of toys sold in stores.

• 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 CPSC.