Parents cope with season of suspect toys
With 80 percent of children's toys manufactured in China, recent recalls have parents looking for safer alternatives.
Alice Hollowed never figured she'd need to worry about toxic toys. A fan of simpler play things for her children, she doesn't even allow battery-operated toys in her house.Skip to next paragraph
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So it came as something of a shock to her this year when her son's wooden "Thomas" train toys were recalled.
"It horrified me," says Ms. Hollowed, a Chicago mother of three. "You buy these nice wooden toys, $20 apiece, you don't expect it to be full of lead. I'm not even buying the plastic toys and we still got caught by the recall."
With more than 25 million toys recalled this year, for reasons ranging from testing positive for lead paint to containing dangerous magnets, many parents are angry, and wondering what they need to do to ensure toys are safe. Some are implementing their own boycotts on all Chinese-made toys – not an easy proposition since 80 percent of toys sold in the US are made there – or looking for more reputable manufacturers. Parents are buying home lead tests and combing recall lists. A few are encouraging their children to play with traditional items such as wooden blocks, puzzles, and books – or to embrace the entertainment power of cardboard boxes – in the hopes that such items might be safer.
Some estimates show that 16 percent of parents say they have not purchased toys because of the recalls according to America's Research Group, and 22 percent say they're less likely to buy toys as holiday gifts. Another poll showed 33 percent of Americans say they will be buying fewer toys this holiday seasons due to recent safety recalls and 45 percent indicate they will avoid buying toys manufactured in China. This number jumps to nearly 7 in 10 among those who claim they have been directly affected by the recall, according to a Harris Interactive Poll.
"This is usually our favorite time of the year, and this has just been a horrendous toy season," says Stephanie Oppenheim, cofounder of Toyportfolio.com, an independent consumer organization. Her company opted not to publish its popular annual toy guide for the first time in 15 years, since it couldn't guarantee items wouldn't be recalled. After testing the award winners, 13 percent of 44 toys came back positive for excessive levels of embedded lead, says Ms. Oppenheim. "We felt that until this sorts itself out, it wouldn't have been responsible on our part to pretend this is a regular toy season."
It's been hard to ignore the recall headlines this year. More than 60 products have been recalled. One of the most recent was Aqua Dots, a popular toy that put several children into a coma after they swallowed the tiny beads. This week, the Chicago Tribune published results of extensive testing the newspaper did on non-recalled toys; out of 800 toys tested, 12 exceeded federal lead-safety levels and another nine violated the stricter Illinois standards.
Toy companies like Mattel have responded with increased testing – which has led to even more recalls – and some large retailers have called for more oversight. Pieces of legislation pending in the House and Senate would also tighten standards on lead, require independent testing on children's products, mandate more safety inspectors, and overhaul the budget of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
In the meantime, some parents feel a little helpless, and many say they are surprised to learn that premarket testing is not required, and that some levels of lead are deemed acceptable.
"When there's so many toys, there's a feeling of it being unavoidable and impossible to monitor," says Hilary Johnson, a mother in Washington, D.C. Lead paint in particular seems ubiquitous, she says. "It feels like it's almost a hazard that's inevitable the same way living in a polluted city is."