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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

Ms. Johnson peruses the CPSC recall lists in an effort to avoid any recalled toys, but she also tries to fight paranoia.

"I don't want anything bad to happen to [my daughter], but I also feel like it's important for the parent to not get too focused on all these potential dangers," she says, noting that ultimately she relies on the recalls to remove hazardous toys from shelves. "It provokes this fear I have that I don't know enough about how to protect my daughter, but I certainly don't want to take every toy away from her."

Oppenheim says she doesn't expect parents to stop buying toys, and notes that even decisions such as buying only plush toys or avoiding those made in China doesn't solve the issue. US-made toys often have components made in China, and several fabric toys – including a set of blocks that had won an award from her organization in the past – were recently recalled. Instead, she urges parents to sign up for the CPSC recall alerts and to avoid particularly dangerous items like jewelry for children. Toyportfolio.com has also published a list of its favorite lead-free toys online. Others are suggesting alternative solutions. Parents as Teachers, an early childhood parent education program, is using the recall issue to promote the idea of homemade toys, which can often stimulate creativity better than flashy battery-operated items. And a coalition of consumer organizations, including Consumers Union, Kids in Danger, and several state PIRG groups, is offering tips at NotInMyCart.org and promoting a "12 Days of Safe Shopping" campaign that will kick off Friday. Consumers will hand out coupons at popular shopping areas urging retailers and manufacturers to pay more attention to what they're selling.

Some parents are taking extra steps of their own. Stav Birnbaum, a new mother and freelance Web producer in New York, has decided to avoid all toys made in China. When she went to the drugstore to look for teething toys for her six-month old, every one was made in China. So she came up with alternate teething solutions, such as frozen carrots, and went all over the city to find a "Sophie the Giraffe" toy that is made in France and uses food-quality paint.

Ms. Birnbaum doesn't plan to buy any toys for Christmas herself, but she worries about relatives eager to shower gifts on her daughter. She recently came up with a wishlist of largely European-made wooden toys at Oompa.com, which she's passing on to relatives, along with a message that if they feel they have to get a gift, she'd prefer nonplastic. Birnbaum also bought a home lead test (imperfect but still considered helpful) to check the few plastic toys she already had in the house. The recalls, she says, "made me realize that I have to be more aware of what's being bought versus just trusting in an industry that obviously is not trustworthy."

Implementing such strict buying measures can be easier with an infant than with an older child who wants the latest must-have toy his friends all own.

Hollowed, the Chicago mother, says she bought Aqua Dots earlier this year.

"That's a toy I probably wouldn't have gotten, but it was advertised on Saturday morning cartoons and he desperately wanted it," says Hollowed. The recall, she adds, "was really scary." She explained to her son why she took away both Aqua Dots and the Thomas engines, and she thinks he understands. Now he's taken to asking about everything: "Does that have lead in it? Is this made in China?"

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