Consumer advocates warn about dangerous toys as the holiday shopping season begins

  • FPIRG's Dalyn Houser handles a toy smartphone that she says is way too loud for kids

At this time of year, mainstream media outlets focus ad nauseum on retail sales. Assignment editors send photographers to outlets like Best Buy or Target to snap pictures of Americans willing to sleep in tents for days to win first crack at buying cheap electronics at 4 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving. (Or, this year, 6 p.m. Thanksgiving night.)

It's also a ritual for advocacy groups like Florida Public Interest Research Group (FPIRG) to try and seize the spotlight as the official Christmas shopping season commences, focusing attention on the safety (or lack thereof) of children's toys. FPIRG did just that today, holding a press conference at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in West Tampa.

"Parents and caregivers should watch out this holiday season for common hazards that litter our toy shelves," said Dalyn Houser, a Program Associate with FPIRG.

FPIRG has posted the 2013 edition of Trouble in Toyland, their annual survey of toy safety. This year's report focuses on toys that pose a potential toxic, choking, strangulation or noise hazard.

Choking incidents are the leading cause of recalls, Houser said, citing statistics showing over 80 children choked to death on balloons, balls, toys or small toy cards in the U.S. between 2001-2011. She also pointed out that just in the past year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled over 172,000 toys because of choking hazards. As she spoke, Houser used as props specific toys mentioned in the report.

Houser then segued into mocking would-be smartphone-type toys, condemning them for exceeded standardized decibel levels established by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The Chat & Count Smart Phone, for example, produces sound measuring higher than 85 decibels when measured at 2.5 centimeters. How do kids play with it? By pressing it up against their ears.

FPIRG is currently working on chemical safety issues, and Houser said her group is gathering petitions that they'll take with them to the Environment Protection Agency's hearing session on improving chemical facility safety, held in Orlando on Dec. 11.

Also present at the press conference was Tampa area Congresswoman Kathy Castor, child advocate Bevin Maynard and Dr. Yolanda Whyte, Pediatrician and board member of Florida Physicians for Social Responsibility, who also focused on how young children choke on small toy parts. What kinds of small parts? "… Magnets and batteries and beads. Some babies … swallow toxic dyes," which she said could cause birth defects.

"And if a child holds a big stuffed animal with the big white tag, they are inhaling flame retardants," Whyte continued. "Some plastics toys emit strong orders. We have to treat them like germs and avoid exposing ourselves by taking universal precautions.”

Last on the dais was Joanne Linkner, identified simply as a concerned parent. She said that, while she always considered herself a "well informed mom," she was surprised at how much she didn't know about the safety of the products she was purchasing for her kids. "We see the headlines and news teasers about dangerous toys, legitimate warnings about the hazards that are out there. However, these very same toys remain on the shelves of our favorite stores."

Linkner went on to say that federal regulations simply aren't safe enough, and parents need to be vigilant in their research when trying to find the safest toys for their kids.

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