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Parents' predicament: So which toys are safe?
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff

Brian Imus, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, discusses the danger of lead paint on the face of a Curious George doll during a news conference at Chicago's Children Memorial Hospital.


Gilber R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

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Published: 11/21/2007 12:19 AM

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Just steps away from a crammed news conference on dangerous toys Tuesday, tiny metal charms dangled from gift shop displays at Children's Memorial Hospital.

The children's jewelry seemed heavy for its size and bore stickers screaming "Made in China" -- both warning signs for lead.

Could these tiny charms meant for sick children really contain a powerful dose of danger?

"You just really can't tell," said Brian Imus, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, which sponsored the event aimed at warning holiday shoppers to steer clear of toxic toys, choking hazards and other dangerous playthings.

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Hospital officials say wholesalers assure them their merchandise is lead-free, but that could be small comfort for parents who have no way of distinguishing one trinket from another.

Such is the predicament many adults face while wandering the toy aisle or picking through a stuffed toy box.

Millions of toys have been recalled this year by the often-criticized Consumer Product Safety Commission for containing lead or lead-based paint. Yet, there could be millions more out there -- somewhere -- beckoning a child's hand or mouth.

The Illinois Public Interest Research Group singled out about a dozen toys Tuesday that could be dangerous.

A red ray gun could hurt a child's ear drum because it exceeds federal noise standards.

A set of magnetic earrings could puncture intestines if swallowed.

Plastic screws in a play tool set were similar to toy nails that caused two children to choke to death last year.

Noise, choking hazards and magnets should always be warning signs for shoppers.

But lead is different. You can't see it. You can't easily test for it. And apparently you can't trust anyone, as even KB and Mattel have put up lead-laced toys for sale.

Politicians are hopping mad and accusing the federal consumer watchdog of becoming a corporate "lapdog," as U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Tuesday.

"It is clear we need a new commission," said the Illinois Democrat.

Lawmakers are expected to move on legislation to boost funding and regulations at the Consumer Product Safety Commission in December.

Critics contend the commission has become too cozy with retailers and has a woefully inadequate staff to monitor the flood of imported toys.

Meanwhile, neither the politicians nor the public interest groups have any solid advice for adults trying to avoid lead or eradicate it from playpens.

This is not comforting, considering lead paint was banned in the U.S. in 1977 because high doses of it, or prolonged exposure to it, can cause brain damage, seizures and death.

"It might just be a good Christmas for books or movies," Durbin said, searching for an answer for toy shoppers.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat, said he just won't buy anything made in China. That blanket standard removes more than 80 percent of toys from the shelves. Plus, some toys simply don't have "made in" labels.

Imus said adults should certainly avoid toys at dollar stores, because they have been the subject of numerous lead-related recalls. He pointed out a small metal jewelry piece the interest group bought at such a store in Chicago. It was 65 percent lead by weight, 1,000 times the federal limit.

It also didn't seem that different from the tiny metal jewelry pieces hanging in the hospital's gift shop across from the news conference.

But hospital spokesman Chris James said the gift shop receives verification from wholesale suppliers that none if its merchandize contains lead.

Buying safe

Here are tips on how to check toys for key dangers. See for the latest on recalled toys.


• Without expensive lab testing, there is no sure way to know if a toy contains lead or lead-based paint.

• The Consumer Product Safety Commission says home-based lead tests are unreliable. They are known to sometimes identify a toy as lead-free when it is not and vice-versa.

• Generally, most identified lead-tainted toys have been imported from China.

• Lead can be in paint, metal, vinyl or acrylic parts of toys.

• Be sure to check toys bought online against recalled items. The Illinois Public Interest Research Group was able to buy online a recalled Curious George doll tainted with lead.

Choking hazards

• If the toy, or parts of it, can easily pass through a toilet paper tube, the item could block the throat of a child under 6.

• Watch for parts of a toy that could break off, like the eyes of a stuffed animal.

• Be aware of warning labels on toys that identify choking hazards.

• Avoid balloons with children under the age of 8.

• Play with a toy a bit to be sure parts of it don't easily break off and possibly be swallowed.

• Make sure toys for older children are not mixed with or played with by children under 6. This can be a particular problem with children visiting other homes.

• Be aware of magnetic toys. Even older children may accidentally swallow very small ones and, once in the body, the magnets can attract each other and cause intestinal perforations.

• Watch out for toys that are thin and elastic. They could wrap around a child's throat and cause strangulation.

Source: Daily Herald Research