Recalls and warnings have retailers and parents getting serious about playthings

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Among the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recalls this month:

-- Yellow Children’sFashion Sunglasses sold at Dollar General stores, for a lead paint hazard.

-- Aqua Dots craft kits. A coating on the beads contains a chemical that can turn toxic when many are ingested. Two children went into comas after swallowing the beads but later recovered.

-- Skippy pool toys. The elastic tongue of the fish can break and forcefully come out, cutting the users’ hands during launching of the toy.

The CPSC announced those recalls and nine others on Nov. 7 and 8, most for lead hazards. All were made in China.

And that’s just the beginning of a long line of recent recalls.

Not everything made in China is toxic, but a large number of China-made toys were recalled in recent months.

The Janesville Gazette analyzed the last 100 of the CPSC’s toy recalls, from January through October and found:

-- The majority were for choking hazards, often for magnets that could come loose from toys.

-- 31 were for lead. Of those, 30 products were made in China and one in Hong Kong.

-- Some of the lead-hazard recalls involved major toy manufacturers or retailers, including Toys ‘R’ Us, Target, Fisher-Price and Mattel.

The vast majority of the recalls were not linked to actual injuries, but children have died after choking on toy pieces or swallowing magnets. A burn from an Easy-Bake oven caused loss of part of a child’s finger.

It’s enough to make a parent rush to the toy chest. That’s a good idea.

It’s also enough to make holiday gift-buyers wary. That’s another good idea.

But no toys for Christmas? Probably not.

Members of Congress have questioned how well the federal government is doing its job of keeping toys safe, but the recent spate of recalls shows that some safeguards are in place.

And the recalls also put stores and toymakers on guard.

Case in point: Patch Products, the Beloit board-game maker, got calls from its major retail distributors this fall, Target, Wal-Mart and Toys ‘R’ Us.

The retailers had precautions in place, but they were double- and triple-checking, said Patch Products’ Lisa Wuennemann.

Patch always had tested its products in an independent laboratory and has never issued a recall, but recent concerns led Patch to double-check procedures and re-test a few of its products, Wuennemann said.

But who do you trust?

Glen Loyd, a consumer specialist with the state Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection, said the name brands are more trustworthy, despite their recent failings.

“Their reputations are at stake, and they care about kids,” Loyd said. “And the name-brand stores that we normally deal with, they care, too.”

Even a small-time manufacturer such as Wisconsin Wagon Company rechecked the paints it uses on its Janesville Wagons and other products, said owner Karen Ferguson.

Despite companies’ vigilance, however, dangers persist.

“Obviously, Mattel was safety-testing their things, too, and obviously some things slipped through the cracks,” Wuennemann said.

Mattel has recalled millions of toys this fall for lead or choking hazards.

“Stick with the stores that you know and trust, toy companies that you know and trust,” Loyd said. “Read the label. Labels are very important.”

Loyd also recommends putting more trust in the “Made in USA” label.

“We do have stronger standards in this country,” he said.

Loyd also suggests parents check their kids’ toy boxes and remove:

-- Potential choking hazards.

-- Toys that are broken, leaving sharp edges.

-- Small magnets that become dislodged from larger toys. Magnets have killed children who swallowed them.

And keep bigger kids’ toys out of the hands of the little ones.

“It’s similar to making sure you put those little plugs in your light sockets—making sure those little pawns in a game don’t get in the hands of small kids,” Wuennemann said.

In other words, don’t rely on the government to keep your child safe. Parents and child-care providers are the first line of defense.

Happy shopping.

Label reading for beginners

Toy buyers are advised to be label readers, but labels can be confusing. Here’s what I learned on a visit to a local toy store:

-- Some of the product information is so small that visually impaired people like me might want to bring a magnifying glass along.

-- “EDAD”—It looks like some kind of a code, especially when combined with a label such as “Age 3+.” But it’s just the Spanish word for “age.”

-- An illustration of two people sitting at a table with “3-4” underneath it. Not a safety warning at all. It just means that the game is for three to four players. Took me a while to figure that out. That can be confusing, because on some packaging, it’s combined with another illustration that says something like “8+,” which means it’s for kids age 8 and older.

-- “Warning! Choking hazard” on the front of Parker Brothers’ Aggravation game. Points here for Parker Brothers being so up front. Many toys simply have a label that says “Age 3+,” which could mean the same thing. Of course, you could argue that any board game with little pieces poses a choking threat, so any sane person would keep it out of the reach of small children.

-- Made in USA, sort of—Like so many products, toys can have some parts foreign and some domestic. My favorite was one version of Milton Bradley’s Twister, which said “Made in USA with mat and instructions made in China.” If you look elsewhere on the box, you find that the game has only three items: The mat, the instructions and the spinner. Do the math.

-- “Conforms to ASTM F963”—This means the manufacturer voluntarily complied with a highly technical standard that was written to make the product safer. I also found this wording: “This product conforms to voluntary product standard F963.” You can go to the ASTM Web site to read the standard, but I don’t advise doing so without a manufacturing engineer at your side.

A word about lead

The Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services had this to say during one of the recent lead-laced toy recalls:

“While this product has been found to contain hazardous levels of lead, we want to remind parents of young children that the most common lead hazards are found in homes built before 1978 that have lead dust from lead-based paint.”

For more information on lead paint, go to http://dhfs.wisconsin.gov/lead or contact your county’s public health department.

Last updated: 10:36 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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