Heed warning labels on toys
• Photo gallery: Toy safety
Holiday toys conjure up images of innocent fun, and that makes the potential of any toy-related injury or death even more tragic.
The good news from federal officials this holiday season is that the number of recalls of dangerous toys has been on the decline over the past three years and increased awareness can help keep even more kids safe this year.
Investigator David Cheng tracks toys in Hawai'i year-round as part of his job with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"Be a label reader," Cheng urges, and "buy toys that are age appropriate."
He also encourages families and caregivers to make sure that toys with small parts or other potential hazards are not left out where younger children could get their hands on them.
Sure, there's some common sense in carefully thinking whether a gift matches the child's age, skills and personality.
Did you really think that wheeled shoes would be a smart move for a bouncy 4-year-old? Or a chemistry set that involves potential fires for a precocious 8-year-old? And how many lawn darts have been recalled?
But some dangers are more subtle. Sometimes it makes sense to separate an older child from a younger sibling when the older one is playing with toys that aren't appropriate for the younger one.
And Cheng warns of occasional hazards that might not raise an alarm but can be deadly.
Balloons — found at birthday parties, stores and even restaurant give-aways — can be a major choking hazard.
And people often don't even think of balloons as a toy.
Holiday decorations can also be more dangerous because they introduce hazards that might be carefully screened from everyday life: small parts, colorful breakables, things that can tip over if you pull on them and more.
On a recent visit to Thinker Tots in Ala Moana Center, Cheng swung into action, tugging on toys to see if small parts would break off and checking whether other items would fit into a clear tube — a sign that they could be a choking hazard.
Cheng said sometimes, with the permission of store owners, he scrapes paint off toys to analyze for lead content, read labels and even drops them to see how sturdy they are. But it's all for a good cause.
"The last thing we want to see is a tragedy involving a toy," he said.
Thinker Tots owner Nancy Page — who also owns sister stores Thinker Toys and Thinker Things — said stricter standards that require toys to have certification from an independent lab offer more peace of mind for retailers and their customers.
As a locally owned toy store, Page and her employees carefully screen what they buy and hand-select toys that combine quality and value.
Page said the strict testing requirement prompted some companies to produce fewer items; others post their certifications on their Web sites to help trim costs while still meeting the law.
So far in calendar year 2009, the national consumer agency has had 38 toy recalls, which is down from 162 in 2008 and 148 in 2007.
Toy recalls involving lead paint also dropped this year to 14 recalls involving lead, down from 63 in 2007 and 85 in 2008.
The commission credits this decline to increased enforcement at the ports, cooperation with other nations, consumer awareness and education, and compliance by the industry with new federal safety rules.
For 2008, Cheng said the commission has reports of 19 toy-related deaths and about 172,700 hospital emergency room treated toy-related injuries to children under 15. Almost half of these injuries, approximately 82,300, were children younger than 5 years old.
Most of the deaths were associated with drowning, motor vehicle involvement, or airway obstruction from a small toy or small part of a toy.
"Do parents want to pay a little more for quality?" Cheng asked. "In this economy, it's tempting to try to save money."
Page sees that her customers are thinking safety and the environment as well as price.
"They get more play value out of something quality," she said.
The commission doesn't recommend home test kits for lead because they give misleading false positives and negatives. That can mean you're really giving your child a hazardous product without even knowing it.