THURSDAY, Dec. 20, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Holiday toys are supposed to surprise and delight. But this year, toys are threatening to cause more worry than joy.
Millions of toys made in China have been recalled in recent months by toy companies, many because they were decorated with lead paint. The recalls involve popular brands, including Hot Wheels, Barbie, and Thomas the Tank Engine, among others.
The recalls have also pushed toy safety to the forefront of consumers' consciousness.
"We are hoping the unprecedented news attention will remind parents to make wise toy choices," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG, a national consumer advocacy group. "There's nothing new about what happened here, except it was on the front page."
An estimated 202,300 toy-related injuries were treated in U.S. emergency rooms in 2005, and there were 20 deaths. Nine of the deaths involved choking or asphyxiation, and the toys included six small balls, a balloon, a bead from a toy horse figurine, and a toy dart, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported.
Lead paint is a more insidious hazard to children, because its toxic effects usually aren't immediate. Prolonged exposure can affect a child's mental and physical development, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"There is no safe dose," Mierzwinski said. "Continued exposure makes it worse. Parents must get the lead out of their child's environment."
To keep up with toy recalls, whether due to lead content or other safety problems, parents should frequent the Consumer Product Safety Commission's Web site at www.recalls.gov.
Parents should also be careful with any toy, new or old, said Christine Bradley, safety program manager for Prevent Blindness America. "Just because something's new to the market doesn't make it necessarily safer," she said.
And parents should know that just because a toy sits on a store shelf, that doesn't make it safe. U.S. PIRG reported finding some toys for children under 3 years of age with small parts but no warning label identifying the toys as a potential choking hazard.
Some toys can pose a hazard even if they meet the letter of the law. Last year, two small children suffocated when oversized, plastic toy nails sold with a play tool bench became lodged in their throats, U.S. PIRG said.
Toys containing tiny yet powerful magnets are raising new concerns among safety advocates.
A 2-year-old boy in Redmond, Wash., died in 2005 after ingesting magnets that had fallen out of plastic building blocks that the boy's 10-year-old brother was playing with. The magnets entered the boy's small intestine and then connected, twisting his intestine and forcing deadly bacteria into his bloodstream.
"They're very powerful, tiny little cylinders," Mierzwinski said. "Several get trapped and can fold the intestine to cause a blockage."
One of the first things parents should consider when choosing a toy is whether their child is old enough to enjoy it properly.
"You want to buy toys that are age-appropriate and show children how to use them," Bradley said.
Prevent Blindness America offers these other suggestions:
- Read all warnings and instructions on the box.
- Avoid toys with sharp or rigid points, spikes, rods or dangerous edges.
- Buy toys that will withstand impact and not break into dangerous shards.
- Avoid toys that shoot or include parts that fly off.
"Any sort of toy weapon, that's just got eye injury written all over it," Bradley said.
Parents also should look for the letters "ASTM" on the toy's packaging. This means the product meets the national safety standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials.
And parents should take care to keep older children's toys away from their younger siblings, as their toys can contain small parts or balls that can choke a younger child.
"If you have a child who still mouths things, keep the older child's small parts away," Mierzwinski said. "You've really got to check your toy chests. Make sure toys belonging to older children are not available to smaller children."
If giving a riding toy like a scooter or bicycle, parents should make sure they also buy protective gear like helmets and pads, and make sure their kids use them.
Finally, parents should avoid buying one of the most common -- yet one of the most dangerous -- items on the toy market: latex balloons. Balloons and pieces of broken balloons can block a child's airway and should never be given to children younger than 8.
"Balloons are a terrible choking hazard," Mierzwinski said.
For more on safe toy shopping tips, visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.