Report: Consumer Protection

Trouble in Toyland: The 24th Annual Survey of Toy Safety

Released by: Florida PIRG Education Fund

In 2008, Congress responded to an unprecedented wave of recalls of toys and other children’s products by passing the first major overhaul of the Consumer Product Safety Commission since it was established during the Nixon Administration. 

By passing the landmark Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) in August 2008, Congress not only expanded the agency’s budget, it also gave the CPSC more tools to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable and speed recalls, moved toward banning toxic lead and phthalates except in trace amounts, and greatly improved import surveillance.

The recall of 45 million toys and other children’s products in 2007 and continued recalls in 2008 reminded Americans that no government agency tests toys before they are put on the shelves.

Specifically, the wave of recalls focused attention on the fact that the agency charged with protecting Americans from unsafe products—the Consumer Product Safety Commission—is a little agency with a very big job to do.

The CPSIA strengthened the CPSC and established tough new protections against toxic chemicals like lead and phthalates.  New and expanded leadership at the CPSC has begun to put these protections into effect.

But there is no magic wand to rehabilitate the tattered product safety net.  Considering the 15,000 products under its regulation, the CPSC remains a

very small agency with a very big job to do.  Tough new bans on lead and phthalates are a good step in the right direction, but there are tens of thousands of toxic chemicals in our children’s lives.  We continue to learn more about the relationship of toxic chemicals to chronic diseases.  More must be done to protect our families from toxic chemicals.

The 2009 Trouble in Toyland report is the 24th annual Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) survey of toy safety.  This report provides safety guidelines for parents when purchasing toys for small children and provides examples of toys currently on store shelves that may pose potential safety hazards.

In researching the report, we visited numerous national chain toy stores and other retailers in September and October 2009 to identify potentially dangerous toys. We analyzed CPSC notices of recalls and other regulatory actions to identify trends in toy safety.  This year, we focused on three categories of toy hazards: toys that may pose choking hazards, toys that are excessively loud, and toys that contain the toxic chemicals lead and phthalates.

In the next section, we identify our key findings. Findings:

- Choking Hazards -

Choking on small parts, small balls and balloons remains a leading cause of toy-related deaths and injuries.  Between 1990 and 2007, at least 196 children died after choking or asphyxiating on a toy or toy part; three children died in 2008 alone. 

The law bans small parts in toys for children under three and requires an explicit, prominent warning label on toys with small parts for children between the ages of three and six.  In addition, balls with a diameter smaller than 1.75 inches are banned for children under three years old. 

Although most toys on store shelves are safe, we still found some toys that may pose choking hazards.  Specifically:

  • We found toys for children under three with small parts and toys with small parts for children under six without the required choke hazard warning label. 
  • Our analysis of recalls and other actions taken by the CPSC from January 1-November 10, 2009 revealed that choking hazards were the leading cause of such actions.  In 2009, 5.3 million toys and other children’s products have been pulled from store shelves due to choking hazards.
  • Some toys may pose a choking or suffocation hazard even if they meet the letter of the law.  We found toys with small parts that just barely met the CPSC standard. We recommend making the test for small parts more protective of children under three.  CPSC also should consider, at minimum, special labeling for toys shaped like corks or toy nails, which pose special suffocation risks because of their shape.

- Loud Toys -

Almost 15 percent of children ages 6 to 17 show signs of hearing loss.  In March

2007, the American Society for Testing and Materials adopted a voluntary acoustics standard for toys, setting the loudness threshold for most toys at 85 decibels, and for toys intended for use “close to the ear” at 65 dB.  The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act made most ASTM F963-07 standards mandatory.

We found that toys currently on store shelves may not meet the standards for appropriately loud toys; in fact, some toys we tested exceeded 85 decibels when measured at close range.

- Lead in Toys -

Exposure to lead can affect almost every organ and system in the human body, especially the central nervous system. Lead is especially toxic to the brains of young children.

Lead has no business in children’s products, whether in paint or coatings or in metal toys, jewelry or other children’s products (vinyl bibs, lunchboxes, etc). The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act bans lead except at trace amounts in paint or coatings (90 ppm limit as of August 2009), and in any toys, jewelry or other products for use by children under 12 years old (300 ppm limit as of August 2009, and 100ppm by August 2011).

So far in 2009, CPSC has recalled nearly 1.3 million toys or other children’s products for violations of the lead paint standard. The CPSC has recalled an additional 102,700 toys and other children’s products for violation of the 300 ppm lead standard.

Some children’s toys and jewelry may contain high levels of lead.  In one case, we found a piece of jewelry that contained 71% lead by weight. We also found toys that exceed the CPSIA’s lead paint standards.

Support us

Your tax-deductible donation supports Florida PIRG Education Fund’s work to educate consumers on the issues that matter, and the powerful interests that are blocking progress.

Learn More

You can also support Florida PIRG Education Fund’s work through bequests, contributions from life insurance or retirement plans, securities contributions and vehicle donations. 

Florida PIRG Education Fund is part of The Public Interest Network, which operates and supports organizations committed to a shared vision of a better world and a strategic approach to social change.