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Safe Toys Make for Happy Holidays

Inappropriate gifts can lead straight to the emergency room

FRIDAY, Dec. 12, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Ask a parent with young kids to rattle off the "hot toys" this holiday season and you'll hear a litany that includes Barbie Cook With Me Smart Kitchen. And Hokey Pokey Elmo. And the McFlurry Maker.

That's just for starters.

Parents and relatives who dote on children spend much of their toy budget in November and December, dropping an average of $350 per year per child on toys, says Colleen McMillen, a spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association.

But before you stand in interminable lines or drive miles to find that "must-have" gift, remember to pay attention not only to what's hot but what's safe. An age-appropriate toy can reduce the chances of choking, strangulation or other hazards, and head off an emergency-room trip -- or worse.

That's why December has been designated Safe Toys and Gifts Month.

In 2001, 25 children in the United States died from toy-related accidents. And 255,100 toy-related injuries were serious enough to warrant treatment at emergency rooms, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Thanks partly to federal oversight, toys have become less risky.

"By and large, there have been improvements in toy safety," says Jennifer Mueller, a spokeswoman for the National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups.

Still, accidents can happen.

Choking is the most common cause of toy-related injury. At least six children choked to death in 2000 alone, the CPSC reports. The agency requires toy manufacturers to meet safety standards and to label certain toys that could be hazardous for young children.

For instance, toys that would be dangerous for young children are required by the CPSC to be labeled with warnings.

A good rule of thumb when buying for children under age 3 is to pass up anything with a diameter small enough to fit into an empty toilet paper tube, Mueller says. "That should be considered a choke hazard for young kids. That tube is about the size the Consumer Product Safety Commission uses in its tests," she adds.

If a child is under age 3, avoid marbles, small balls and games with balls that have a diameter of 1.75 inches or less. And don't buy toys with sharp edges or points.

Also, beware balloons. Broken balloons are particularly dangerous because they can block a child's airway if swallowed.

"Every single year we have found balloons marketed to young children," Mueller says.

To further minimize risks, shoppers should pay attention to warning labels. Parents often think their child is smarter than the average 3-year-old, so they buy an advanced toy and ignore the label, Mueller says: "Even smart kids still put things in their mouth."

McMillen agrees that many accidents happen because the toy is inappropriate for the age of the child, or the parent isn't paying attention while the child is playing with it. "We always stress parent involvement and supervision while playing," she says.

The task of vigilance can get tricky because not all toys may appear in stores with labels. That's especially true of toys tossed into a bin, unpackaged. There's nothing wrong with buying them, Mueller says, but check for loose or small parts that could choke a child.

For children aged 3 to 5, avoid toys made of thin, brittle plastic, the CPSC suggests. If you're buying art materials, look for a label that says ASTM D-4236. This means a toxicologist has reviewed the material and, if necessary, added a caution label.

For older children, bicycles, scooters, skateboards and inline skates should come with protective gear. Give a CPSC-approved helmet with a bike; a helmet, knee pads and elbow pads with a scooter or a skateboard; and a helmet, knee pads, elbow pads and wrist guards with inline skates.

Finally, if buying older children a toy gun, pick one that's brightly colored, or at least has a brightly colored barrel. That way it won't be mistaken for a real gun, the CPSC says.

More information

For more toy safety information, visit the National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

SOURCES: Jennifer Mueller, National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups, Washington, D.C.; Colleen McMillen, Toy Industry Association, New York City
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