Dangerous toys

Michelle Hobar of the Public Interest Research Group demonstrates how parents can use a tube -- she said a toilet paper roll will work -- to check for choking hazards. If it fits in the tube, it is inappropriate for small children.  (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services

An advocacy group wants you to hang up on Elmo.

No, not necessarily the big stuffed piece of giggling red fur. It's the cell phone being marketed to kids 18 months and older.

The problem according to Michelle Hobar of the Public Interest Research Group is that Elmo is too loud. She said while the multi-colored flip phone fits within the general safety standards of 85 decibels at 10 inches, it's 74-decibel level is still too loud because of a simple fact: Children will hold it to their ears.

PIRG is no more enthusiastic about the Hot Wheels Super Stunt Rat Bomb hot rod which Hobar said tested out at 93 decibels at a distance of 10 inches.

The two toys are part of a longer list that PIRG and its allies at the Phoenix Children's Hospital say should not be under the Christmas tree this year or any. Others generally fall into three categories:

• Items coated with lead-based paints.

• Toys with phthalates, a chemical that helps make plastics soft.

• Small toys or those with break-away parts that can be choking hazards.

And that last category actually includes more than items meant for children. It also includes those small button batteries that power everything from calculators to talking greeting cards.

But it is in the area of toys which make noise where Hobar acknowledged parents looking for safe items are likely to run up against their youngsters' natural instincts.

"Kids love noise," she acknowledged. But Hobar said there is still a way to create toys that kids will like and keep the noise level below that 85 decibel mark.

"It's an easy adjustment that can be made by the manufacturers to keep it below that dangerous level," she said. "So kids can still have noisy toys, but not excessively loud and dangerously loud toys."

Hobar said that 85-decibel level is not a federal limit but instead comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Campaign for Hearing Health. But use that as a threshold for dangerous noise levels.

In other cases, she said, there are federal standards. But Hobar said PIRG members still found items violating those standards on store shelves.

One, a teething and touching toy, was tested as having 720 parts per million of lead, a chemical linked to developmental and brain problems. The standard for new toys is 100 ppm, though retailers can still sell existing inventories with three times that much.

Phthalates present a different question, with some studies linking that chemical to problems in unborn children.

Federal law does ban items with certain types of this chemical in excess of 1,000 parts per million. Hobar showed off a plastic nose-and-glasses combination that she said tested at 42 times that.

Both of these hazards are invisible to consumers, forcing them to rely on federal testing and enforcement.

Hobar said, though, that one very common hazard can be avoided if parents take the precaution of bringing an empty toilet paper roll with them when they go shopping: If a toy - or some piece that could come off - fits in the tube, it will fit into a small child's mouth and could get stuck in the throat.



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