Lawyer Urges Tougher Toy-Safety Laws

TO the toy industry, Boston attorney and consumer advocate Edward Swartz is something of a Grinch.Each year a month or so before Christmas, Mr. Swartz releases his nationally known "10 Worst Toys List," that names toys he believes pose safety hazards to children. The timing couldn't be worse for the toy industry. Amid the flurry of TV commercials urging consumers to join the Christmas toy shopping rush, Swartz sounds a call for caution. "I don't have to look too hard to find dangerous toys," he says. For the past 20 years, Mr. Swartz has tested, studied, and written about toys. And although the toy industry has made strides in improving product safety, Swartz says there are still plenty of products sold every year that cause injuries. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were 164,500 toy-related injuries last year. In addition, there were 37 toy-related deaths from January 1990 to September 1991. The majority of these involve choking, usually on small items like balloons and marbles, says Ken Jiles, public safety specialist for the commission. Swartz and other consumer advocates say toys can be dangerous if they have sharp edges, small parts, breakable parts, flammable material, hazardous electrical equipment, or lead paint. Swartz, who is a product liability lawyer, says his work with toy safety has resulted in product recalls, design changes, and stricter safety standards. He has also written two books: "Toys That Don't Care" and "Toys That Kill." But despite his campaign against unsafe toys, some companies still continue manufacturing dangerous products for children, he says. He mentions Fisher Price as an example. The company was found negligent in a 1981 case involving a 14-month-old child diagnosed with brain damage after it choked on one of Fisher Price's "Little People" figurines. But even after the company designed a larger version of the doll, it allowed the smaller dolls to remain on the market. And last year, three children died from ingesting the smaller dolls, Swartz says. Jack Martin, a spokesman for Fisher Price, says these children were all under the specified age of two years. Swartz says the US toy industry needs to be more stringently regulated, as it is in England, the Netherlands, and Norway. He urges government-mandated testing so unsafe toys can be caught before they reach store shelves. The toy industry doesn't take kindly to Swartz's efforts. Industry officials say he should inform them earlier of unsafe toys instead of waiting until the Christmas season. "He's a very good public relations man, but he doesn't know a thing about toy safety," says Jodi Levin, communications director for Toy Manufacturers of America. "He's frightening parents needlessly."

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