Some toys are toxic, others may be a threat to eyes, and some can pose choking or noise hazards.
"Parents shouldn't assume that every toy that is on the shelf is safe or has been tested by the government," says Elizabeth Hitchcock, communications director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).
PIRG has released its 17th annual toy consumer report, called Trouble in Toyland, which documents potential hazards the group found on store shelves in the past few months.
Hitchcock stresses that PIRG has limited staff available to do these toy checks, so it's impossible to include all potentially dangerous toys in the report. While the report is a starting point, parents have to be vigilant about closely inspecting every toy they consider buying for their children.
Each year, 150,000 to 200,000 American children are treated for toy-related injuries, says the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
About 15 children die each year in the United States while playing with toys. Those deaths can be caused by choking on small objects, falling off riding toys, or being hit by a car or falling into a pool while playing on a riding toy, the commission says.
Hitchcock says choking on small toys or small parts is the leading hazard.
Eyes can be especially vulnerable, too. In 2001, nearly 10,000 children were treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms for eye injuries caused by toys and sporting equipment, says Prevent Blindness America.
BB and pellet guns, toy weapons, slingshots and sling-propelled toys accounted for 1,917 of those eye injuries.
Many parents mistakenly believe there's little or no danger from a BB or pellet gun because they had one when they were children and never got hurt, says Dr. John B. Jeffers, director of the emergency department at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia.
However, his experience in the emergency room makes it clear how dangerous those guns can be. And just telling a child not to point a BB or pellet gun at others won't lessen the danger.
"The majority of the BB gun injuries that I have seen in the emergency room have not been direct hits (to the eye). They've been ricochets -- kids standing behind the shooter and the BB comes back and hits the eye," Jeffers says.
Paintball guns and high-pressure water guns can also inflict eye injuries, he says.
Whether it's guns or toys with pointed edges, many parents don't think about toy safety until one of their children has suffered an eye injury, Jeffers says. That can suddenly turn parents into the most ardent toy safety advocates.
Prevent Blindness America says BB and pellet guns, slingshots, water guns and any other toys that shoot or release projectiles should be removed from gift lists.
Inspect toys to ensure there are no sharp edges or points that may cause eye damage, the organization says. Toys should be able to withstand impact. Don't buy toys with small parts for young children. That could increase the risk of choking.
Check your children's toys regularly for broken parts. If they can't be safely repaired, throw them out. Older children sometimes modify toys, making them unsafe. Be vigilant.
Read instructions and labels to determine if a certain toy is appropriate for the child's age and ability. Age labels on toys are there for safety as well as developmental guidelines.
You should also recommend to family and friends gifts that you feel are appropriate for your child, so they don't buy something that may be a potential hazard.
And keep alert for toy recalls. You can often find recall notices at the front of stores. Take recalled toys back to the store where you bought them.
Here are some more holiday toy shopping safety tips from St Louis Children's Hospital:
- If you're buying your child a bicycle, scooter, skateboard or inline skates, the child needs to have a properly fitted helmet. Helmets can reduce head injuries by up to 85 percent, the CPSC says. Your child's helmet should be fitted so it doesn't slide backward. After you adjust the helmet chin-straps according to instructions, tape or sew the straps so they don't come loose. Don't forget wrist guards and elbow and knee pads if your child is getting inline skates, a skateboard or a scooter.
- Don't buy toys that may pose a choking hazard for children 3 years old and younger. That includes larger toys that have parts that detach and could choke a child. Here's a rule of thumb -- if a toy fits inside a toilet paper role, it's too small for a toddler. Latex balloons are a major choking hazard for young children.
- If you're considering a bat and ball for a young child, opt for the soft foam-type ones.
- Large, stuffed animals are fine as long as you don't put them in the crib, where they can become a potential suffocation hazard.
- When buying electric toys such as train sets or remote-controlled cars, check for the "UL Approved" label.
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