Smart Holiday Shoppers Select Safe Toys

Simple precautions can help parents keep their children from harm

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By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

SUNDAY, Dec. 18, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- As the holiday shopping season draws to a close, experts are urging parents to carefully screen the toys their children receive this year and assess their safety.

Approximately 165,000 American children aged 14 and under were treated at hospital emergency rooms for toy-related injuries in 2002, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Nearly half of the children treated were ages 4 and under.

Experts urge parents to read the age guidelines and warning labels placed on toy packaging, and heed them, even if they believe their child is advanced for their age.

For children younger than 3 years old, doctors are most concerned about choking hazards, said Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Columbus Children's Hospital, in Ohio.

Parents need to read labels carefully and hew closely to age guidelines, avoiding toys with small parts. They also should avoid small round balls less than 1.75 inches in diameter, said Smith, who's chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention.

"I describe those as the perfect plug for a child's airway," he said, adding that he tells parents to consider equally dangerous those toys or objects that are similarly round or cylindrical -- small tops, for instance, or small plastic hot dogs that come with a kitchen play set.

In its annual Toy Safety Survey, the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group listed dozens of potentially dangerous playthings. One of the most worrisome, said Alison Cassady, PIRG's research director and author of this year's report, is the water yo-yo ball.

"There is no single manufacturer," she told HealthDay. "A lot of them are made in China. It has a long stretchy cord and a ball at the end with water or other liquid. A loop is at the end of the string. You can throw it around like a regular yo-yo but this just goes out about five feet and snaps back quickly. If you swing it like a lasso it wraps around your neck."

The three yo-yo balls listed in the report include the "Water Yo-Yo Ball" (assorted makers), "Flashing Jellyfish/Flashing Noodle Yo-Yo" (assorted makers), and "Bungee-Roos" animal yo-yos by Ganz.

Parents also should avoid giving latex balloons to children, Smith said, noting that the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends no balloons to children under 8 years old.

"If a fragment of a balloon would be sucked down into the airway, they tend to drape right over the vocal cords," Smith said. "I liken it to shrink wrap. It conforms to that opening and it is virtually impossible to get it out."

Fifty-four percent of toy-related deaths in 2002 were due to choking, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and about 44 percent of those deaths were attributed to balloons.

An easy way to determine if a toy is a choking hazard is to see if it will fit through a cardboard toilet paper tube, Smith said.

"If the ball rolls through the tube, it's too small to be given to a small child," he said.

With older children, one of the big concerns is suffering a head injury or broken bone while playing with a riding toy, such as a bicycle or skates, Smith said.

"If you give one of those toys to a child, it should always be accompanied with a helmet," Smith said. "The head injuries, the brain injuries, can be devastating and life-threatening."

Parents also should not give motorized vehicles like minibikes or motor scooters to children younger than 16 years old, he said.

"Parents mistakenly believe that because they're child-sized, it's appropriate to ride them," Smith said. "Children don't possess the maturity, the judgment, coordination and strength to safely operate motorized vehicles."

Children of all ages are vulnerable to eye injuries caused by toys, said Dr. Joseph M. Miller, a professor of medicine at the University of Arizona and chairman of the Pediatric Advisory Committee for Prevent Blindness America.

"Any kind of toy that can be a projectile, the faster it goes the more dangerous it is," Miller said. "The eye is relatively well-protected by the bones of the head, but when you're a child the bones haven't protruded in front of the eyes, so you're at greater risk."

Projectiles also can become choking hazards.

Joan Lawrence, vice president of standards and regulatory affairs for the Toy Industry Association, said parents and other toy buyers should be sure to buy a toy that is age-appropriate (looking at the label on toys that says it is for children of specific age ranges).

"If you buy toys that are age-appropriate and give the toy to a child in the appropriate age category and supervise, you can greatly reduce the chances of an accident," she said.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission offers these other toy-safety tips:

  • Snapping or machine-gun noises from a toy can damage a child's hearing. Caps are dangerous if used indoors or closer than a foot from a child's ear.
  • Toys with strings, ropes or cords can cause strangling if they get tangled around a child's neck.
  • Parents should check all toys periodically to see if they've broken, leaving a sharp edge or some other hazard. Damaged toys should be thrown away or repaired immediately.
  • Electric toys that are improperly constructed, wired or misused can shock or burn. Children should be taught under adult supervision how to use electric toys properly.

More information

To learn more, visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

SOURCES: Alison Cassady, research director, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Washington, D.C.; Joan Lawrence, vice president, standards and regulatory affairs, Toy Industry Association; Gary Smith, M.D., director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Columbus Children's Hospital, Ohio, and chairman of the Committee on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention for the American Academy of Pediatrics; Joseph M. Miller, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Arizona, and chairman of the Pediatric Advisory Committee for Prevent Blindness America; U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

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