The Ten Most Dangerous Toys of 2010
Toy safety advocate on what not to buyBy Cynthia K. Buccini
Alums Joan Swartz Siff and her father, the late Edward Swartz, founded World Against Toys Causing Harm (WATCH), in 2008. Swartz Siff talks about this year's dangerous toys in an excerpt from a live chat on December 15, 2010.
But she’s likely not shopping for this year’s hot holiday item. She is often on the lookout for something more sinister: small, detachable parts that can be swallowed, projectiles that can cause eye injuries, plastic daggers that can cut, or trinkets that are toxic with lead. Siff is president of World Against Toys Causing Harm (WATCH), a nonprofit that wants to make consumers and toy manufacturers more aware about unsafe children’s products and releases a 10 Worst Toys list each holiday season. The organization was founded in 1973 by Siff’s father, the late Edward Swartz (LAW’58), a trial lawyer and child safety advocate; Siff (LAW’91, COM’92) left a legal practice to join him in 2000.
Among this year’s 10 Worst Toys are the Spy Gear Split-Blaster, a dart gun that WATCH says can fire with enough force to cause eye injuries. The Supasplat Splatblaster, which shoots water-soluble paintballs, instructs users to wear the supplied glasses, but warns that the glasses “cannot provide actual protection,” according to WATCH. The list also includes a sword made of rigid plastic that can cause injuries and a pair of aluminum stilts aimed at kids as young as five.
“This year’s worst toys list contains numerous examples of recurring hazards,” says Siff. “The potential for blunt impact injuries, hearing loss, choking, and eye injuries are a few of the hazards found on this year’s list.”
More than three billion toys are sold in the United States each year, according to WATCH. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced in November that while toy recalls and toy-related fatalities among children declined last year (the CPSC received reports of 12 deaths of children under the age of 15 in 2009, down from 24 in 2007 and 2008), injuries are on the rise. Several of the deaths were associated with tricycles and other riding toys. In 2009, there were an estimated 186,000 toy-related injuries, such as lacerations, contusions, and abrasions, treated in hospital emergency rooms. That’s up from 152,000 injuries in 2005, according to the CPSC.
“Accidental deaths and injuries to children are always tragic,” says Siff, “but it is particularly unacceptable when those injuries and deaths are preventable. Toys are an embellishment of life, not a necessity. If a toy is unsafe, that toy has no place being made or sold. While statistics help quantify that there is a problem with unsafe toys, even one injury to one child is one too many, especially when that injury is preventable.”
Siff spoke with Bostonia about the hidden dangers of toys, the toy industry, and the gifts she buys her own children.
Bostonia: What are some of the most common hazards that crop up every year? Are there particular categories of toys that are problematic?
Siff: What’s so surprising is that year after year, many of the same hazards do reappear. Defective design and manufacturing often lead to sharp edges that can lacerate, small pieces that can break off toys, posing choking hazards to young children, projectiles that can injure eyes, and strings that can cause strangulation. In the last few years, we’ve seen many magnet toys with the potential to cause serious abdominal injuries when the magnets are ingested and attach to each other in the abdomen. There are many other hazards out there, including toys that can cause blunt impact injuries, burns, suffocation, and ingestion hazards. More companies should look at toys that have caused injuries or deaths in the past when designing their toys. While manufacturers shouldn’t use “body count consumerism”—waiting for injuries to make changes— they should use their knowledge of the industry’s past mistakes during the design and manufacturing process.
Do you get complaints from the companies whose toys you list?
Sometimes companies complain when their toys are on the list. Since the first “Worst Toy” list 38 years ago, the toy industry has often refused to acknowledge that there is a problem. Yet each year, children continue to be injured or maimed from dangerous toys.
What hidden dangers should parents and consumers look for as they do their last-minute holiday shopping?
Before holiday shopping, they should educate themselves about toy hazards. They should research toys before buying them and resist the impulse purchase. Many consumers shop under the false assumption that toys purchased from big-name manufacturers and retailers are not dangerous. In fact, seeing a familiar name on a package can lead to a false sense of security that the toy is safe. Also, toy shoppers should physically examine toys and read all the warnings and labels prior to purchase, keeping in mind the common hazards to look out for.
Many hazards are not immediately obvious. Toys with parts that can detach and become lodged in a child’s throat are often not considered “small parts” by the industry. Young oral-age children are at risk when they break off pieces of shoddy or inadequately designed toys. These hidden hazards have led to many incidents of deaths and brain damage, but can still be found in newly designed toys.
Shoppers should examine each toy for pieces that can be easily removed or break off during play. A common hazard for infants are toys made with materials inappropriate for oral-age children. If the toy has fiber-like hair that is not well rooted, and it is intended for an oral-age child, then we recommend not buying it due to the potential ingestion hazard. Do not hesitate to test the product by pulling on the hair. As a rule of thumb, if it looks hazardous, it is best to stay away. Projectiles should usually be avoided, but are an even greater risk when other objects can be substituted for the “ammunition” sold with the product.
When examining the toy and packaging, if the warnings seem unrealistic (e.g., “never leave child unattended with this product”) or blatantly ominous (e.g., “may lead to severe injury or death”) chances are that this is a toy to avoid.
What changes should be made in the toy and game industry?
More regulation is definitely needed. The key is oversight. We can pass plenty of legislation, but without enforcement and significant penalties for violations, the rules and regulations will have little meaning. Also, certain toys on store shelves may not violate any industry or regulatory standards, but are clearly dangerous, proving the gross inadequacy of existing standards. The Consumer Product Safety Act of 2008, created to address the very real problem of unsafe toys, is a move in the right direction, but is not the cure-all. The act should be used as a floor, not a ceiling, for safety requirements. Additionally, the act does not have the proper enforcement behind it. Evidence of the continuing problem with unsafe toys is the 36 toy recalls, representing over 8.8 million units of unsafe toys polluting the marketplace, in a recent 12-month period. The burden must be on manufacturers and retailers, not consumers, to identify the known hazards before their products enter the channels of commerce.
Do age recommendations on packages really work? What about warnings, which seem as though they can be contradictory?
Age recommendations on packages are helpful, but consumers should use them only as a starting point when purchasing a toy. From there, even toys “recommended” for certain age groups can present hazards for such children. Toy shoppers should examine the toys and use their own judgment. The Spy Gear Split-Blaster on this year’s list has a warning that reads, “Do not aim at eyes or face. To avoid injury, use only with darts designed for this product. Do not modify darts or blaster.” Toys should be made with the end use in mind, taking into account how children play. If you see a warning like the one on the Spy Gear Split-Blaster, this is probably not a toy you want to give your child.
Toys often have contradictory warnings and instructions. Another toy on the list, the Supasplat Splatblaster, is an example of a toy with inconsistent warnings and labels. Avoid toys that have instructions that just don’t make sense.
How is WATCH making a difference?
WATCH’s mission is to raise awareness about unsafe children’s products. By educating the public about life-threatening toys and other children’s products, WATCH saves lives and prevents injuries. One way WATCH accomplishes this mission is with the 10 Worst Toys list. WATCH also holds an annual safety conference in the spring to keep the public up-to-date on the state of affairs in the toy industry, as well as to raise awareness about dangerous children’s products associated with the warm weather.
In many instances, the 10 Worst Toys list has led to product recalls and products being pulled from toy store shelves. However, once a toy is in the channels of commerce, it is almost impossible to remove it. Recalls are necessary and important, but may not reach every consumer who has a dangerous toy sitting like a time bomb in their child’s toy box. The first line of defense when it comes to toy safety is safe design and manufacturing. For this reason, one of the most important roles of the 10 Worst Toys list is to hold the toy industry accountable for the continuing problem of unsafe toys.
What kinds of toys do you buy your own children?
Sweaters. Actually, that’s always been the joke in my family that children only get sweaters because no one wants to give them a toy. My children do have toys, but we examine them before letting them use them. We also try to keep it simple—sometimes children have the best time with basic toys without all the bells and whistles. My children are aware of many toy hazards and take an active role in examining toys that come their way. While it certainly cannot be a child’s responsibility to make sure his or her toys are safe, it’s important that children feel empowered and know how to be active consumers.