Safe and Sound Toys

Haba's Dancing Eggs game.
Haba's Dancing Eggs game. (Haba Usa)
By Hannah Schardt
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 2, 2007

All 6-year-old Audrey Ashdown wanted for Christmas was an Easy-Bake Oven. She used the toy exactly once -- to bake a little cake -- before Hasbro recalled about 1 million of the ovens manufactured since May 2006.

In the months leading up to the recall, 77 children were burned, including one burn so serious it resulted in the partial amputation of a 5-year-old's finger. Audrey's mother, Capitol Hill resident Jill Cashen, took away the oven as soon as she heard about the recall. A few months later, Cashen found herself once again playing the anti-Santa: Audrey's favorite birthday gift, a collection of Mattel's Polly Pocket dolls, was recalled for posing a choking hazard.

"She had been asking for them forever," says Cashen, who went to the Mattel Web site to see whether the exact Polly Pocket dolls in her daughter's room were recalled. Some were; some were not. "But I felt like we couldn't really be sure, so we took them all away," she says. "As a parent, it's really frustrating and scary."

Fortunately, Cashen didn't have any Thomas the Tank Engine wooden trains (recalled in June because of lead paint) or Fisher-Price Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer figurines (recalled in August, also for lead). But millions of parents are scrambling to check whether any of the toys in their overflowing living rooms or playrooms could burn, choke or poison their kids. And once the dust (lead or otherwise) settles from this extraordinary round of recalls, some parents are bound to ask themselves: What can I do to avoid this in the future?

"It's very difficult to do, but for the time being I'd encourage parents to look for alternatives to toys made in China," says Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel for Consumers Union, the nonprofit organization that publishes Consumer Reports magazine.

All of the recently recalled toys were manufactured in China, as are 80 percent of the toys sold in this country. Many China-made playthings may be perfectly safe, but for jittery parents, Consumers Union advises an excess of caution: Along with removing the recalled products and testing the lead levels of kids who may have been chewing on lead paint, parents should substitute any questionable toys with books, unpainted toys and other safer alternatives.

Stores That Know the Source

So where to find such things? Some local retailers have made a point of knowing where their toys are made -- and what they're made of.

Most of the goods at Tugooh Toys (1419 B Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-333-0032), a three-month-old boutique in Georgetown, are imported from Europe by owner Grace Marupa.

"Even before the recall, I always made sure I knew how these toys are made," says Marupa, who also owns the neighboring organic children's clothing shop, Yiro. "Almost all of them use stain, not paint, and it's a food-grade stain."

The recent spate of recalls has been a boon for Marupa. "When I opened [Yiro], people would come in and make fun of it. They'd say, 'Organic? Why?' " she says. "Now when they come in to buy toys, they want to know where and how they were made."

Marupa also offers glass baby bottles at her store. Common in Europe but nearly unheard of here, the bottles got a boost in August when a National Institutes of Health panel announced that there was "some concern" that bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that may cause neurological disorders in children, could leach out of many of the most popular plastic bottles into milk or formula. Glass bottles and BPA-free plastic bottles -- notably the increasingly hard-to-find Born Free brand -- also can be found in some local Whole Foods Markets as well as online ( http://www.newbornfree.com).

Other area toy stores, such as Barston's Child's Play in the District, Rockville and Baltimore ( http://www.barstonschildsplay.com) and local chain Tree Top Kids ( http://www.treetopkids.com), carry toys made in China but also offer many alternatives: Barston's has a huge selection of board games, and Tree Top sells a European-made Playmobil.

Web Sites That Are All-Natural

Another option is online retailers. Several small-scale, European or made-in-the-U.S. toy companies have found a market for handmade trains, wooden rattles and organic stuffed animals on the Internet, including:

  • Elves and Angels ( http://www.elvesandangels.com): handmade wooden toy kitchens (from $169.90) and accessories such as enamel kettles ($23.90) and colorful wood vegetables ($36.90), built on a farm in Maine.
  • Holgate Toys ( http://www.holgatetoy.com): classic wooden toys such as stacking rings on a cone ($18) and a pounding board with pegs and hammer ($26).
  • Maple Landmark Woodcraft ( http://www.maplelandmark.com): a slick Web site with a variety of toys, including baby rattles (from $8.50), ABC blocks ($50), Midget Railway train cars ($6.40) and jigsaw puzzles ($18.50).
  • Oompa Toys ( http://www.oompa.com): This large selection of European-made toys includes organic cloth stuffed animals suitable for infants, such as the Lana chicken ($35.99), a catch-and-run Dancing Eggs game by Haba ($14.99) and sleek dollhouses you can furnish with such sets as the Ambiente Playroom by Selecta ($44.99), so they'll look as if they're right out of Dwell magazine.
  • Stack & Stick ( http://www.stackandstick.com): wooden building toys that look like Legos for the Ingalls family, including the Grande Villa 99-piece set ($87).
  • Whittle Shortline Railroad ( http://www.woodentrain.com): handmade trains painted with lead-free, child-safe paints, all compatible with the popular Brio and Thomas track systems, including the Amtrak three-car Superliner ($49.99) and the Little Engine That Could ($19.95).


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