THIS year, consumers in the United States will buy 1.7 billion toys - almost 60 percent of them just before Christmas. ``Toys are going to sell. People will buy them even if they can't buy clothes because kids pester parents,'' says Gary Tice, a salesman at a Toys `R' Us, the world's largest toy store.
``An adult will pass up a new suit or dress to make sure he or she doesn't have to lower the budget on Christmas toys,'' says David A. Miller, president of the Toy Manufacturers of America. ``Only ladies cosmetics beats us for discretionary dollars.''
The United States leads the world in toy development, with some 150,000 individual products. Each year, about 5,000 new items are introduced to US markets, about three-quarters of them made outside the country. But overseas plants are difficult to inspect, and foreign manufacturers may not adhere to US safety requirements.
``When you buy a recognizably American-made toy you can be sure it meets at least the minimum safety standard,'' Mr. Miller says.
Yet last year an estimated 152,000 people, half of them children under age 5, were treated for toy-related injuries. Most of the injuries were the result of falling on, tripping over, or being hit with a toy, and ingestion of small toys or parts of toys.
The federal government also recalled 200 toys last year for safety reasons.
The most dangerous product is the balloon: Swallowing or choking on balloons has resulted in 63 fatalities in the past 10years. Adults should inflate balloons and supervise their use with children under six. Burst balloons should be disposed of immediately.
When buying toys, adults should know the skill level, interests, and talents of the child, and pay attention to age recommendations. A package marked for ``age 3 and older'' does not refer to the child's cognitive ability, but to the fact that the toy contains small parts that may pose a choking hazard to children under the age of three.
A good toy, says the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), is ``appealing and interesting to the child, suited to his physical capabilities and to his mental and social development, and is well constructed, durable, and safe for that child's age.'' Mandatory toy-safety regulations prohibit for all ages shock or thermal hazards in electrical toys. They also severely limit the amount of lead in toy paint, and forbid toxic materials in toys. The CPSC recommends electric toys with heating elements only for children older than eight.
If you are buying a doll or stuffed animal for an infant or toddler, make sure that all seams and small parts - including the eyes and nose - are tightly secured and that there are no removable squeakers on squeeze toys.
One rule of thumb is that if the toy or its parts are smaller than the child's fist, avoid the toy. Avoid toys with long strings or cords that could wrap around a child's throat and pose a hazard.
Toys for children under eight should be free of sharp points or glass and metal edges. With use, older toys may break, exposing sharp edges. Stuffed toys may have wires inside that could protrude. Examine all outdoor toys regularly for signs of rust or weak parts.
Teach children when playtime is over to store their toys in a hinged, ventilated toy chest that will stay open in any position. Toy chests should not have lids or doors that could latch accidentally while a child is inside.
Arrows or darts should have soft cork tips or rubber or plastic suction cups. Avoid dart guns that might be capable of firing articles not intended for use in the toy, such as pencils or nails.
The CPSC also regulates the amount of noise toy caps and toy guns can make. The law requires a warning label on boxes of caps producing noise above a certain level.
To determine a toy's safety or to report a product-related injury, call the CPSC at 1-800-638-2772. For a free ``Guide to Toys and Play'' booklet, write: Toy Booklet, P.O. Box 866, Madison Square Station, New York, NY 10159-0866.