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Bostonia: The Alumni Magazine of Boston University

Fall 2008

Toys Gone Bad

Father-daughter consumer advocates release 2008 “bad toy” list in time for holiday shopping

| From Alumni Notes | By Katie Koch

Toy safety advocates Edward Swartz and his daughter, Joan Siff. Photo by Leah Fasten

Among the modern traditions of the holiday season, the Ten Worst Toys List is already a classic. Released at the start of every shopping season for the last thirty-five years, the list reads like a Santa’s workshop gone bad: pirates whose swords can actually stab, toy guns that can really hurt, and baubles that look like candy and are coated with dangerous levels of lead paint.

The list is compiled by World Against Toys Causing Harm (WATCH), a nonprofit founded in 1973 by Edward Swartz (LAW’58), a Boston litigator. His daughter, Joan Siff (LAW’91, COM’92), left a flourishing legal career in 2000 to become WATCH’s executive director. “It’s in my blood,” she says.

This year’s Ten Worst Toys List is just out. Siff says that while there have been some safety improvements in the toy industry over the years, the same hazards tend to crop up year after year. “We see toys that are toxic from lead,” she says, “toys with small parts, toys with sharp edges that can injure children.”

For example, the 2008 list includes the Sportsman Shotgun, which comes with rubber bullets, and the Go Go Minis line of toy cars, whose detachable wheels are a choking hazard.

Swartz’s involvement in consumer advocacy dates back to his stint as editor of the BU Law Review, when he began writing some of the first articles on product liability law. He realized just how underregulated the toy-and-game industry was when he testified before the National Commission on Product Safety in 1968. The lack of government oversight and the “ticking time bombs” in his own children’s toy chests inspired Swartz to write two books on toy safety, Toys That Don’t Care and Toys That Kill.

Up until that time, no one had written one negative word about toys,” Swartz recalls. “When the industry didn’t like it, I knew it was very effective.”

A large part of WATCH’s work is trying to keep dangerous products out of the hands of consumers. Swartz and Siff note that it’s easier and less costly for a company to recall a toy that’s already been sold to millions of parents than it is to remove unsafe features during a toy’s development. It’s more expensive, for instance, for companies to check for lead in the many products that are made overseas. A recall puts the onus on parents to send a toy back, if they hear about it at all.

“In the six months following our last toy conference, there were thirty-seven toy recalls,” Siff says, “which represent over 3.6 million toy units that are out there already in children’s toy boxes. Not all of those toys are sent back to the manufacturer.”

She and Swartz say the ten toys WATCH picks each year aren’t the only offenders on the market; the list is really just a way to promote awareness of how dangerous many commonplace toys — three billion of which are sold every year in the United States — can be.

They stress the need for parents to research toys before they buy, something that they fear is becoming harder to do in an era of Internet shopping. They’re lobbying to have the same warnings and age recommendations that appear on toy packages listed on retailers’ Web sites.

“One thing we always talk about is that toys are not a necessity of life — they’re an embellishment of life,” Siff says. “If it’s something that could possibly maim or kill a child, then it has no value.”

Still, practicing what they preach couldn’t have been easy for the Swartz family. Surely Siff received at least a few toys as a child?

She laughs. “Just sweaters,” she says.

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