SUNDAY, Dec. 21, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- The shiny toy seems perfectly safe, held snug in bright packaging and proudly displayed on the shelf of a reputable store.
But recent experience has shown that looks aren't everything.
A wave of toxic toy recalls in 2007 shook up parents and toy buyers, forcing them to rethink the dependability of purchased playthings.
A new set of consumer laws passed in the wake of those recalls could make this the most secure holiday season in some time, in terms of toy safety. Still, experts are urging parents to not let their guard down when it comes to assessing this year's gifts.
"A lot of the new standards don't go into effect until next year, but we're hoping the manufacturers and retailers will get ready early," said Liz Hitchcock, a public health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and part of the team that puts together the organization's annual toy safety report.
"At the same time," she added, "we don't want parents to think, 'Problem solved, let's go to the store,' thinking everything in the bill has been implemented. Parents need to be vigilant about what's in the toy box."
The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, passed by Congress in summer, requires that toys and infant products undergo extensive testing before they are sold. The act also bans lead and other harmful chemicals in toys.
Other parts of the act call for the creation of a comprehensive, publicly accessible consumer complaint database; increased civil penalties that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) can assess against violators; and protection of whistleblowers who report product safety defects.
"We actually feel like this holiday season is going to be one of the safest because of the exposure we've gotten over the past couple of years," said Nychelle Fleming, a spokesperson for the CPSC.
There were an estimated 220,500 toy-related injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2006, and about 165,100 of the injuries involved children younger than 15, according to the CPSC.
Another 22 children under age 15 died in toy-related accidents, according to the CPSC. The two main causes of death were airway obstruction from small toys and injuries sustained from riding toys.
The choking hazard posed by small toys, or toys containing small pieces, is well-known and highly publicized. Small balls, balloons and pieces of broken balloons are particularly dangerous, as they can block a child's airway.
Parents are urged to examine toys thoroughly, and even use a cardboard tube to test and see whether a piece could get lodged in their child's throat.
"You don't even have to bother buying a tube," Hitchcock said. "Just use a toilet paper tube you've got in your bathroom, anyway."
Less emphasized up to now has been the danger posed by riding toys. As scooters, skates and other such toys grow in popularity, however, more children are being hurt and even killed in accidents involving them.
In 2006, three deaths occurred when children riding on non-motorized scooters either hit or were hit by an automobile. Two deaths involved tricycle mishaps, and three more involved powered riding toys.
"If you're going to buy ride-on toys, anything that gives your child more mobility, we want to make sure you also are buying the proper safety equipment," Fleming said. "If you do buy that brand new shiny bike, you should also buy the helmet. You should get the complete package for your child."
Another toy hazard involves playthings with magnetic pieces. If a child swallows more than one magnet, they can attract each other in the body and cause blockages.
"If you swallow one, it may pass through," Fleming said. "If you swallow two or more, they can connect in the intestines. We've seen intestinal perforations resulting from this."
Experts also urge parents to pay attention to the labeling on packages and to buy age-appropriate toys.
Too often, parents buy toys for their kids that are out of their child's age range, because the child is considered bright enough to play with an advanced toy, Fleming said. The problem is, even bright children might not have the motor skills necessary to play with those toys in a safe manner.
"You have to understand that the age is there for safety, not just for comprehension levels," Fleming said. "We have to put those toys away and wait for the kids to reach those milestones."
There's one other hazard parents should keep in mind -- the packaging the toys come in. They should move quickly on Christmas morning to clean up all the mounds of debris left in the wake of gift-giving.
"The adult really needs to take away those packaging materials," Fleming said, noting such choking hazards as twist-ties, shrink-wrap plastic and small plastic anchors. "We don't want any of the packaging to turn into a deadly plaything, so the adult really needs to clean all of that up."
To learn more about choosing safe toys, visit the Nemours Foundation.