Trouble In Toyland 2021

36th annual toy safety report: Counterfeit toys evade safety rules, endanger children

potentially dangerous toys
Skarynka Alena |

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

So far in 2021, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has recalled 13 toys. In addition, PIRG Education Fund toy 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 foreign-body ingestion by a child and choking because of small parts from easily broken toys.

These days, toys with safety risks are less likely to be found at traditional retail stores, which stock toys from importers and manufacturers that are required to have a Children’s Product Certificate (CPC). The CPC affirms that the toy follows all applicable federal safety standards for children.

But when shopping on websites that act as the middleman between the customer and the seller, consumers can encounter hidden hazards. The middlemen do not consider themselves to be traditional retailers and therefore often do not follow the same rules that a traditional retailer would. Whereas the retailers must receive a certificate of compliance from a manufacturer before selling a toy, not every toy sold online may be covered by a CPC and the toy described in the website listing might not be the toy that arrives at your door. The toys could even contain toxic chemicals such as heavy metals or phthalates, and most parents don’t have access to labs that could test for harmful substances.

In this edition of Trouble in Toyland, we share our best tips on how to identify potentially unsafe toys sold online and in stores.

The CPSC estimates that emergency rooms treated 198,000 toy-related injuries in 2020. This is a notable decrease from toy-related injuries reported from 2013 to 2019, when injury reports ranged from 224,200 to 251,700 per year. With many Americans staying at home more during 2020, the increased supervision could account for this drop in toy-related injuries. The best way to keep a child safe from injury from a toy is to keep an eye on them, look out for any broken toys and to ensure the toys are age appropriate.

Our 36th annual Trouble in Toyland report calls attention to the biggest toy safety issues, along with tips to minimize the risk in your home.


Knockoff toys


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A counterfeiter can produce a toy for much cheaper than a legitimate manufacturer by using faulty materials and not participating in any safety testing. Counterfeiters often market toys with images that look similar to a brand that consumers already know and trust.

Second-hand toys


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In addition to people who sell dangerous products with nefarious intent, some people just trying to get rid of old things online don’t check whether what they’re selling has been recalled. And buyers of second-hand toys may not know about any recalls.

Another problem: toy safety standards regarding toxic chemicals have changed a lot in the past decade. This means that toys made before August 2011 may have higher levels of toxic chemicals.

Ingestion risks


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Zen Magnets were recalled in August after years of controversy and injuries.

Similar magnets are still available for sale. Ingested small batteries cause hundreds of injuries each year.

Choking hazards


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Small parts that children can choke on present one of the biggest toy dangers. A toy meant for children ages 3 to 6 is required to have a warning label if it includes small parts. You need to be especially careful about this when buying toys online, because websites often post the wrong age restrictions.

Noisy Toys


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We tested five toys that we suspected may make so much noise that they can hurt children’s hearing, based on online reviews. We used two different decibel meters, made by different manufacturers. Four of the five showed reason for concern.

Smart toys


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These can pose security risks, like data being collected on a child, a hacker gaining access through a Bluetooth connection or children being exposed to inappropriate content.

Supply chain woes

Red Points, a brand intelligence platform, found that 52 percent of toys and games brands reported an increase of counterfeits online.

Counterfeit products aimed at holiday shoppers, including some toys that pose safety risks, are such a big problem that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials started conducting Operation Holiday Hoax in 2009. The coordinated effort to find and seize counterfeit or pirated goods also involves the CPSC, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and other offices. Government officials say “the production and trafficking of counterfeit goods poses a significant health and safety threat to consumers.

To add to the complexity of online shopping, supply chain issues have affected manufacturing and distribution for the upcoming holiday season. Consumers can expect to have more difficulties shopping for the perfect toy this year, especially from the genuine, original manufacturer.


  • Congress should pass the INFORM Act. The Integrity, Notification, and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces Act, introduced in March, would require online merchants to collect, verify and disclose certain information from high-volume, third-party sellers. The goal of the bill is to thwart sales of stolen, counterfeit or dangerous consumer products — toys and other merchandise.
  • The CPSC should continue to research the health effects of phthalates and to strengthen current standards in accordance with the results.
  • The CPSC should take strong enforcement action to prevent high-powered magnets from continuing to be sold as fidget toys on the market.
  • The CPSC should strengthen product standards to prevent children from getting and swallowing magnets or button/coin batteries.
  • Congress should pass Reese’s Law, introduced in September, which would require child-resistant closures on consumer products that use such batteries.
  • To prevent choking, the CPSC should consider a broader definition of “small parts” and adapt its test to flunk larger items than it currently does. Children under the age of 3 have died from toys that were bigger than the small parts test and children over the age of 3 have died from toys considered safe for their age demographic.


When toy shopping for the kids in your life, use this guide to help avoid dangerous toys.

Knockoff toys

What to do Scrutinize the seller, reviews and the price. Toys that are significantly less expensive than they should be could be counterfeits.

Second-hand toys

What to do When shopping online for second-hand toys, check out to find out about any past recalls.

Toys kids might swallow

What to do Households with small children should not have high-powered magnets. With toys that have button/coin batteries, check that the battery compartment has a screw and is child proof.

Choking hazards

What to do Use a toilet paper tube to test small parts in the home. And check whether toys are broken, especially if they will be used by or be around a child under the age of 3.

Noisy toys

What to do If a toy you’re considering buying sounds loud, don’t buy it. If you already have a noisy toy at home that you’re concerned may be too loud, you can take the batteries out so it doesn’t make noise or put duct tape over the speaker to stifle the sound.

Smart toys

What to do Before buying a smart toy, read its description to understand what technology it uses and how your child will interact with it. It’s a good idea to search the toy’s name and the manufacturer online to see if either have sparked any privacy concerns. Look for COPPA approval, too.


Most toys that contain small parts are labeled as choking hazards. But that’s not guaranteed, as we’ve seen. Gift-givers should use care when purchasing online, even if the toy says it’s meant for a 1-year-old or 2-year old. And parents with young children should thoroughly inspect toys, regardless of what the label does or doesn’t say. Parents should make decisions based on how they believe their child of any age will interact with the toy.



  • Subscribe to email recall updates from the CPSC and other U.S. government safety agencies available at
  • Report unsafe toys or toy-related injuries, or look up recalled toys, by going to the CPSC at

Photo credits—Top Image: Nomad Soul / Highlight boxes (clockwise): CSPC; Public Domain via; Barbara Rayman via WikiMedia, Dragon Images via Shutterstock; Public Domain via; Staff photo. Toy Safety Tip (top to bottom): Tatiana Popova /; somsak nitimongkolchai /; Ink Drop /; Anna Mente /; Public Domain CC0; Public Domain CC0; staff; Photo Spirit /; Oakozhan /; Public Domain CC0; staff photo; CSPC.