Trouble in Toyland

The 19th 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 2004 Trouble in Toyland report is the 19th 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 pose choking hazards, toys that pose strangulation hazards, toys that are dangerously loud, and toys that contain toxic chemicals. 

PIRG researchers visited numerous toy stores and other retailers to find potentially dangerous toys and identify trends in toy safety. PIRG also conducted its fourth survey of online toy retailers. Key findings include: 


Choking on small parts, small balls and balloons remains a leading cause of toy-related deaths and injuries. At least 150 children choked to death on children’s products between 1990 and 2003, a rate of about 12 deaths a year. 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. 

– 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. 

– Retailers are doing a better job of placing choke hazard labels on bins in which toys with small parts are sold, as required by law. 

– Balloons are still manufactured and marketed in shapes and colors attractive to young children and often sold in unlabeled bins. 


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: 

– The popular yo-yo water ball poses particular hazards to young children, including strangulation and other injury to the eyes, neck and face. As of October 15, 2004, the CPSC had received almost 400 injury reports related to yo-yo water balls.

-PIRG researchers found one toy with a long elastic cord and bead at the end, which may pose a strangulation hazard to small children. 


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 new ASTM standards for appropriately loud toys. 

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


In addition to posing choking and other hazards, some toys can expose children to dangerous chemicals. PIRG researchers found: 

– In response to bans and regulations imposed by European safety agencies, many manufacturers of children’s products have stopped using phthalates in toys for the US market and are labeling their products as “phthalate-free.” Unfortunately, some manufacturers continue to use phthalates in their products. Phthalates, a class of chemicals used to “plasticize” or soften otherwise brittle PVC plastic material, have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems. 

– Manufacturers are selling play cosmetic sets that include nail polish containing toxic chemicals, such as xylene and dibutyl phthalate. 

– Tests have shown popular polymer clays used for crafts, such as Fimo and Sculpey brands, contain up to 14 percent phthalates by weight and may expose children, as well as adults, to dangerous levels of phthalates through inhalation and ingestion. 


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. 

In addition, the CPSC recently determined that gasoline and other flammable liquids are involved in half of all reported clothing-related burns to children. Parents should be aware of products marketed for children that could be extremely flammable. For example, PIRG researchers found glitter hair sprays containing propane and marketed to young girls that aremore flammable than ordinary hair spray. Children should only use these products under close adult supervision and away from open flame. 


Increasingly, parents are turning to the Internet as a convenient way to shop for toys, especially during the busy holiday shopping season. PIRG conducted its fourth 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. Since the CPSC has yet to require online retailers to include choke hazard warnings on their websites, the majority of retailers still do not include choke hazard warnings next to products that otherwise legally require this labeling. Specifically: 

– One-third of online retailers surveyed (12/37) 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. 

– Four online toy retailers use the statutory choke hazard warning on their websites, and four additional retailers use the statutory language but do not include the statutory warning symbol ( ). 

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

– Nine of the online retailers provide no manufacturer age recommendations for the toys we surveyed. 


To consumers and parents:

Be vigilant this holiday season and remember that: 

– The CPSC does not test all toys. 

– Not all toys available meet CPSC regulations. 

– Toys that meet all CPSC regulations may still pose hazards, ranging from choking to hearing loss to chemical exposure. 

– 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. 

– Be aware of “hand-me-down” toys. Keep younger children away from toys with small parts designed for their older siblings.

To the CPSC: 

– Reexamine the parameters by which toys are judged for age appropriateness. 

– Enlarge the size of the small parts test tube and require that rounded toys meet the same choke hazard standards as small balls. 

– Enforce the new ASTM acoustics standards for loud toys and consider strengthening the standards to reduce the sound threshold for handheld toys from 90 decibels to 85 decibels. 

– Ban all sales of yo-yo water balls in the United States. 

– Require online toy retailers to display safety warnings otherwise required by law on toy packaging on their websites. 

– Require manufacturers to label toys, not merely packaging, with manufacturer identification. 

– Ban phthalates in toys and other products intended for children under five. 

To toy manufacturers: 

– Aim for 100 percent compliance with toy regulations. 

– Use statutory choke hazard warnings on retail toy websites. 

– Put manufacturer identification on toys, not just packaging.

– Do not make handheld toys that produce sounds louder than 85 decibels. 

– Do not manufacture and market balloons for children under 8 years old. 

– Cease using phthalates in products intended for children and label these products as “phthalate-free.” 

To toy stores and online toy retailers: 

– Clearly label bins containing small toys, or the toys within the bins, with appropriate warnings. 

– Consider the height of bins containing toys with small parts. 

– Make sure they are high enough that children under three cannot reach them. 

– Make sure all balloons are packaged with a statutory warning. Never place loose balloons in bins. Do not sell balloons aimed at an age-inappropriate audience. 

– Display mandatory choke hazard warnings next to toys with small parts, small balls, and balloons sold on websites.