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Health Tip: Toys to Avoid for Young Children

Kids' Toys

Story at-a-glance -

  • In 2012, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reported 11 toy-related deaths and an estimated 265,000 toy-related injuries treated in emergency rooms
  • Young children should not be given toys with cords or strings, sharp edges, or small parts
  • Balloons, tiny magnets, and button batteries are among the most dangerous objects for small children
  • Many toys contain chemicals linked to developmental and reproductive harm; choose pure, organic toys made from natural materials like wood in lieu of plastics like PVC

By Dr. Mercola

If you'll be shopping for little ones this holiday season, keep safety in mind when choosing which toys to buy. Contrary to popular belief, just because a toy is on store shelves does not mean it's automatically safe for children, and many variables come into play that can actually make some toys hazardous.

Please read through the tips below before purchasing any new toys for kids, and, of course, apply them to toys you already have, removing any of those that you deem potentially unsafe.

9 Potential Toy Hazards to Avoid

In 2012, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reported 11 toy-related deaths and an estimated 265,000 toy-related injuries treated in emergency rooms.1

Most of the toy-related deaths were due to drownings (such as a toddler falling off of a tricycle into a pool) or suffocation, while injuries were most often lacerations or contusions.

Such accidents are tragic and, in many cases, preventable. CPSC has detailed what to watch out for when choosing toys for children to help you keep your kids safe.2

1. Cords and Strings

These pose a strangulation hazard for infants and young children. Watch out for toys with long strings, cords, loops, or ribbons, and keep such toys away from cribs and playpens. Crib mobiles and crib gyms should be removed as soon as your child can pull up on hands and knees.

2. Sharp Edges

Toys for children under 8 years of age should be free of sharp glass or metal edges. Watch out for older toys that may break and expose sharp edges.

3. Small Parts

Small parts pose a choking hazard and are banned on toys for children under 3 years. This includes removable small eyes and noses on stuffed animals and dolls, and small removable squeakers on squeeze toys. Pay attention to toy labels that warn of choking hazards for children under 3.

Balloons, in particular, are responsible for more chokings and suffocations in children than any other toy. Keep uninflated or broken balloons away from young children.

Also, watch out for plastic film coverings on toys, which are intended to be removed before use. Such packaging can also pose a choking hazard if accidentally left on the toy.

4. Loud Noises

Toys such as noise-making guns and toy caps can produce loud noises that may damage hearing. When using such toys, do not place them closer than one foot from your ear and use noise-making guns outdoors only.

5. Sharp Points

Toys for children under 8 years should not have sharp points or prongs that could cut or stab a child. Look out for broken parts on older toys that may have sharp points (including sharp wires inside of stuffed toys).

6. Propelled Objects

Arrows, darts, missiles, and other projectiles for children should not have sharp points. Avoid letting children play with hobby or sporting equipment intended for adults, as these objects (darts, etc.) can be turned into weapons and may injure eyes.

Projectiles for children should have soft cork tips, rubber suction cups, or other protective tips that cannot cause injury.

7. Electric Toys

Electric toys must meet mandatory requirements for maximum surface temperatures and electrical construction, and must have prominent warning labels.

Such toys with heating elements are recommended only for children 8 years old and over. Teach your children how to handle electric toys carefully and only under adult supervision.

8. Infant Toys

Rattles, squeeze toys, and teethers must be large enough so they cannot enter an infant's mouth and throat.

9. Toys for Inappropriate Ages

A toy that is safe for an older child can become deadly in the hands of a young child. Follow age recommendations on toy labels for this reason, and be sure to teach older children to keep their toys away from younger siblings.

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Buckyballs and Button Batteries Can Be Deadly for Children

While we're on the topic of safety, if you have children, it's a good idea to thoroughly check your home for two items that can quickly turn deadly: tiny magnets known as Buckyballs and button batteries.

Small "button" batteries, such as lithium-cell batteries, were the most common source of battery-related injuries among children from 1990 to 2009, accounting for nearly 84 percent of cases -- and most often they were swallowed.3 This presents not only a serious risk of choking, but in the case of lithium batteries, severe, potentially deadly tissue damage can result in a matter of two hours.

Past research noted that 13 deaths have been reported due to ingestion of lithium cell batteries, which can lead to esophageal perforation, vocal cord paralysis, and other serious problems if they become lodged in the esophagus.4

Magnets have also been linked to deaths and serious injury in children. Particularly dangerous are tiny magnets made from neodymium and formed into Buckyballs, which are small, very high-powered magnets, but any magnet can pose a danger. Once ingested, magnets can connect across the intestinal wall, causing serious intestinal injury, like punching holes in the stomach and intestines. Be sure to keep these items (including objects that contain button batteries) out of children's reach at all times.

Toy Industry Association Fights to Keep Chemicals in Your Kids' Toys

The Toy Industry Association (TIA) and the American Chemistry Council have successfully defeated numerous bills and policies that would have helped to keep hazardous chemicals like bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalates, formaldehyde, and others out of children's toys.5 Earlier this year, for instance, both groups opposed a now-defeated bill that would have required toy manufacturers to disclose the presence of 19 "high priority chemicals of concern for children's health" – and remove the chemicals within five years.6

Many of these chemicals have been linked to cancer, fertility issues, thyroid disruption, and developmental problems, including brain damage and lower IQ, in children. In one study of more than 1,500 popular children's toys, conducted by The Ecology Center, one in three toys were found to contain medium or high levels of chemicals of concerns, including lead, cadmium, arsenic, flame retardants, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).7 The study revealed alarming levels of toxic compounds in toys that children commonly put in their mouths, sleep with, and handle daily. For instance:

  • 20 percent of the test toys contained lead
  • A significant number of toys contained cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and bromine
  • 27 percent of the toys were made with PVC plastic
  • Children's jewelry was particularly toxic and was five times more likely to contain high levels of lead than other toys

Certain Chemicals of Concern Have Been Limited or Reduced

There have been some positive changes in recent years, including the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which took effect in 2009. This limited the amount of antimony, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, and chromium allowed in children's toys. Retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, Kmart, and Toys "R" Us have also begun to require their suppliers to eliminate PVC from many products and their packaging.

In Washington State, meanwhile, consumers can access an online database where companies must report the use of certain "chemicals of high concern" in children's products. As reported by Environmental Health News:8

"In most cases, no one knows what… exposure to small doses of these chemicals may do to people, especially babies and toddlers who tend to chew on items or rub them on their skin. For many of these compounds, there has been little or no research to investigate children's exposure to them.

'…Children are uniquely vulnerable to exposures given their hand-to-mouth behaviors, floor play and developing nervous and reproductive systems,' said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatric researcher at the University of Washington and the Seattle Children's Research Institute who advised state officials when they wrote the [Washington State] disclosure rules."

Choosing Safe Toys: What to Look For

The bottom line? It's very much a "buyer-beware" market when it comes to children's toys, not only in regard to safety features but also in regard to the quality of materials and toxic compounds therein. So in addition to regularly monitoring toys in your home for broken parts, sharp surfaces, or dangerous wear-and-tear, you'll want to pay attention to the quality of the materials from which your children's toys are made.

There are many "green" and organic toy manufacturers that produce truly toxin-free toys for kids. If in doubt, contact the manufacturer directly and ask them what materials are used, and which are excluded, directly. Read toy labels and ask questions about where and how the toy is made. Additional tips to finding safe, pure toys include:

  • Purchase natural fabric or wooden toys instead of plastic ones, and if you're going to purchase teethers and pacifiers, looks for those that are BPA- and phthalate-free (a frozen washcloth makes a great "natural" teether)
  • Avoid toys made from PVC plastic (soft vinyl plastic), which often contains lead and phthalates
  • Avoid children's "play" jewelry and cosmetics
  • Repurpose items around your home as toys (stainless steel bowls, measuring cups, cardboard boxes… get creative using items around your home as toys for kids)
  • Purchase simple high-quality toys that encourage imaginative play (wooden blocks, materials for building forts, construction paper, books, etc.)