BALTIMORE – Some of the innocent-looking children’s toys on America’s store shelves may be hiding something.
Many products aimed at kids are potentially dangerous, according to an annual report by Maryland PIRG, an independent, citizen-funded, public interest organization.
Despite a recent tightening of federal regulations on toy safety, companies are still importing and selling toys that contain high levels of toxic metals, pose choking hazards or produce excessively loud noises, among other dangers, according to the report.
Matthew Wellington, campaign organizer for Maryland PIRG, presented the report’s findings and focused on safety tips for consumers at a news conference at the Herman and Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore on Tuesday.
Wellington discussed a variety of toys, purchased online and from dollar stores as well as other retailers in Maryland, that Maryland PIRG researchers studied and declared unsafe.
“Some of the most dangerous hazards contained in toys are invisible,” Wellington said.
A set of play sheriff’s badges tested positive for lead, a neurotoxin that can lead to behavioral issues and lower IQ in children, Wellington said.
A toy tambourine contained a high level of chromium, a chemical shown to adversely affect health, he said.
Between 2001 and 2012, 96 children died from choking on toys, balls, balloons or parts of toys, according to the report.
Current regulations are not strict enough for toys made for children younger than 3, Wellington said.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission defines a “small part” as anything that fits inside a small cylinder with a 1.25-inch diameter and a depth ranging from 1 to 2.25 inches, according to the report. Federal law bans the sale of toys intended for children younger than 3 if they contain small parts, and mandates that toys with small parts carry an explicit choke hazard warning for children between the ages of 3 and 6, according to the report.
Kids can still choke on toys that pass the cylinder test, especially toy grocery items that may be mistaken for edible food, he said.
Consumers can test for choking hazards themselves when shopping for young children, said Dr. Dana Silver a pediatrician at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. If the product, or parts of the product, fit through a standard toilet paper roll, it may not be safe for children, she said.
“We say for children 3 and under, but the reality is, kids put things in their mouths,” she said. “I have a developmentally normal child who is 17 and he still puts toys in his mouth. They just do it.”
Small, high-powered magnets, balloons and batteries also made the list of items that are dangerous if ingested by small children.
Wooden toys are often sturdier and less likely to contain harmful toxins, like lead, she said.
“They can be much safer for children than a lot of these plastic things that can break and only last a few days,” she said.
Some toys meant to be held directly to the ear produce loud noises that could lead to hearing damage, Wellington said.
Though products may comply with federal noise standards, a limit of 65 decibels for close-to-the-ear toys, Maryland PIRG finds many noise-producing toys are still too loud for kids, and the standards should be tightened, Wellington said.
The majority of toy-related deaths reported in 2013 were attributed to asphyxiation or choking, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission adopted a new rule in September banning the sale of small high-powered magnets, which can be ingested and cause internal injuries. The ban will take effect on April 1.
The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was passed in 2008 to raise toy safety standards.
Adrienne Appell, spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association, a nonprofit trade group, said federal regulations are fine the way they are and consumers should feel good about the products on store shelves.
“The current regulations are in place for a long time, and they are safe,” she said.
About 80 percent of toys are manufactured abroad, but no matter where they are made, all toys must comply with U.S. safety standards before they are put on shelves, Appell said.
“We tend to find that around the holidays these groups needlessly frighten parents,” she said. “We want parents to feel confident when they walk into a store this holiday season that the toys they are buying are safe.”
Maryland PIRG’s press conference was postponed last week after a grand jury decided not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, Wellington said. The decision caused protests and unrest in Ferguson and across the nation.
“In response to the Ferguson decision, we just decided that it was not the most appropriate time to talk about toy safety,” he said. “We figured that people would be captivated by that and we decided that it wasn’t a good time to be talking about toy safety and shopping for toys with such an issue on the forefront.”