The Consumer Product Safety Commission won't be publishing a "hazardous toys list" this year. The list in previous years kept consumers armed and fore-warned before they went into the toy shops. The commission's stand is there are so few unsafe toys on the market the list is no longer needed.
Still, the CPSC reported an estimated 355,726 toy-related accidents for last year. And that doesn't include bicycle accidents, which numbered nearly half a million. This leaves some consumer activists pointing an accusing finger at the commission.
"The CPSC is shirking its duties again," said Ann Brown, chairperson of the consumer affairs committee of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). "Any parent or any child can go into a toy store and see that there are unsafe toys."
So who's to say which toys are unsafe and how to find them? We asked a number of experts. That turned out to be like asking a yogurt maker where the bacteria are in his cultured yogurt - he knows they're there, but he can't put his finger on them.
The jist of it is, parents will have to use their own judgment. But not totally unaided.
While the CPSC is working on standards for some 150,000 toys, the toy manufacturers, with the help of the National Bureau of Standards, have already come out with a book of specifications for toy engineers. These generic standards, called PS 72-76, have been applied to many toys on the market. And many labels say so.
"There is no enforcement as such," said Beth Blossom, spokesman for the Toy Manufacturers Association, "because they are voluntary standards." But manufacturers are prohibited from mislabeling their products. And toy makers who do meet the standards will likely say so on the box.
Most toymakers stress parental supervision as a means of ensuring toy safety. "As carefully as we've tried to develop safety standards," said Blossom, "there's no substitute for parental vigilance." But Brown quickly says that too many warnings on a label are evil sign.
"if a label had a whole lot of warnings that made it incumbent upon me to be around, I wouldn't buy it," she said.
But there are a few things upon which both manufacturers and consumer watchdogs agree:
Look for labels that say the toy conforms to PS 72-76. Although this doesn't mean toys without the notice are unsafe, it's a fair guide to those toys that do at least, pay some attention to toy safety.
The age labeling on toys is meant to be taken seriously. "We all think our own child is the best and the brighest in the whole country," said Beverly Cannady of Mattel. You might want to buy educationally oriented toys just a bit beyond your child's age to make them challenging. But it's another story if the toys is one with small parts that might be swallowed, or electrical parts that could be mishandled.
Beware of toys that shoot things. They can cause injury to eyes and ears. If small enough, they can be swallowed.
Keep in mind the ages of all your children. Toys that shoot little missiles might be grand for the oldsters, but who's going to watch out for junior to see he doesn't stick the things in his mouth?
Look out for toys made of flimsy plastic. Broken plastic makes sharp edges.
A number of toys are better off in the trash bin than in the toy box. Each year the ADA tests toys at the Georgetown Children's House."Half the toys are broken before we even finish the press conference," Brown said. Be on the lookout for toys that fail even cursory inspection. Some of them sit broken right on the display counters. They speak for themselves.
Read carefully labels on stuffed toys and dolls to see what's inside Teddy Bear. Dolls made of metal rods or wire, teddies filled with chemically produced pellets, pandas with noses that like to fall off - these toys can become dangerous when they begin to wear. Take a good look at the quality of stitching on stuffed toys.
Throw away broken toys, and either repair or get rid of electric toys with frayed wiring.
Look for toys with nonflammable clothing, nontoxic inks and paints, nonallergenic stuffed animal furs.
Feel the edges of toys for sharp points, burrs and splinters. The corners on metal toys should be rounded off, the insides free of sharp metal protrusions.
Ask the salesperson to show you the toy you want out of its packaging. Truth in labeling is federally regulated, but packages remain notorious for being more imaginative than realistic.
If you find a toy you think is a hazard, or if you have questions about the law and toy safety, you can call the Consumer Product Safety Commission at 800-638-2666, 800-492-2937 for Maryland residents.