For holiday toy buyers, some safety tips from a federal watchdog

Small detachable parts, lead paint, the need for safety gear - these are a few of the things the Consumer Product Safety Commission keeps an eye out for as it surveys the toys being offered to Christmas shoppers. A loosely attached pompon on a teddy bear's cap is a good example of a benign-looking item that could present a hazard to very young children, notes CPSC commissioner Ann Graham, in Boston recently to highlight toy safety. The regulatory agency's inspectors have special devices to test whether parts of toys could be swallowed by toddlers.

Other items present even clearer dangers but aren't so easily tested. The basic issue is suitability of a gift. ``Children are getting toys that aren't really toys,'' says commissioner Graham. Two examples, she adds, are so-called all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and lawn darts.

``I don't think kids 12 years or under ever belong on an ATV,'' the commissioner asserts. The panel is seeking help from the Justice Department to require manufacturers of such vehicles to provide safety equipment and training for their products.

Skateboards, which are resurging in popularity, are another toy that cries out for safety precautions, in Ms. Graham's view. Last year there were 58,000 injuries from skateboarding, according to CPSC figures, many of which might have been averted by gloves, helmets, and padding. And parents should take care that a board fits the capabilities of a child, she adds.

In fact, caution and thoughtfulness on the part of gift-buying adults is central to Graham's message.

``Parents and grandparents should think hard about how a child might use a toy,'' she points out, recalling a problem several years ago with a projectile toy. Many children ended up putting the projectiles in their mouths and spitting them out - only some swallowed them instead.

The commission, by the way, ``never advocates projectile toys for kids,'' says Graham. That includes the currently popular Gotcha Gun, which shoots food coloring pellets. Graham says it meets the formal commission standards, but she still has doubts about its suitability for children.

Since so many toys are manufactured overseas and imported to the United States, the commission is making a special effort, dubbed Operation Toyland, to stop unsafe toys at the docks.

But Graham emphasizes that the commission has only 519 employees to check about 150,000 types of toys sold in the US. ``People have to realize that everything on toy store shelves hasn't been tested by the government,'' observes CPSC staff member Diana Swindell. ``It's not true that if they're selling it, it must be safe. A lot of responsibility lies on the shoulders of consumers.''

Consumers who have complaints or questions about toys can call the CPSC at 800-638-2772.

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