A duck pull toy with a 33-inch-long cord that could strangle a child. A “sword fighting Jack Sparrow” with a stiff plastic sword activated at the push of a lever that could wound a child’s eye. A trampoline whose package insert instructs that it should be used only with a “controlled bounce.” (How do you get a three-year-old to do a “controlled bounce”?) These are three of the toys on this year’s 10 Worst Toys List, compiled annually by the consumer watchdog group World Against Toys Causing Harm (WATCH).
Founded in 1973 by the late Edward Swartz (LAW’58), the organization is now run by Swartz’s daughter, Joan Siff (LAW’91, COM’92), and her brother, Boston attorney James A. Swartz.
“It would be really nice if one year I could walk into a toy store and not find a dangerous toy on a shelf,” says Siff. “But there are too many out there that aren’t safe. This is a case of buyer beware. The burden, unfortunately, is on the consumer.”
Siff, who left a legal career in 2000 to become president of WATCH, says that as a consumer advocate it’s frustrating to see the same hazards appear year after year—from parts that can break off of a shoddily made toy to toys with edges sharp enough to cut someone. And don’t even get Siff started on toys that have been recalled, but remain on retailers’ shelves. “The first step is always to fix the toy before it gets out into the marketplace,” she says. “Once it’s out there, it’s often too late.”
Case in point: Twist ’n Sort, which made it onto this year’s WATCH list. Certain lots of the sorting/stacking toy, designed for ages three plus, were recalled in October because, as the Consumer Product Safety Commission put it, “the small pegs on three of the four posts can detach, posing a choking hazard to young children.” Siff says that despite the recall, her organization found a Twist ’n Sort toy with the same choking hazard on a store shelf.
In 2010, there were 17 reported toy-related deaths in the United States among children under 15 years old, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That same year, nearly 252,000 toy-related injuries required trips to hospital emergency rooms.
Why aren’t toy manufacturers more careful? Siff says what’s needed is more government oversight and stronger mandatory and premarket testing by the $30 billion toy and game industry. “The burden has to be on manufacturers and retailers, not consumers, to identify the hazards before their products are placed in stores,” she says.
Take the aforementioned duck pull toy with the 33-inch-long cord, which is recommended for one-year-olds and up. The industry’s standard, says Siff, limits the length of strings on crib and playpen toys to 12 inches. But because this isn’t marketed as a crib toy, that standard doesn’t apply.
And then there are toys with warnings that make one wonder if the manufacturer has any idea how young children play. The Z-Curve Bow, another item that made the WATCH list this year, warns, “Do not aim at eyes or face…” and advises buyers that “arrows should not be pulled back at more than half strength….Anyone within close distance to intended target should be alerted prior to firing.”
“What constitutes half strength?” asks Siff. “My child’s half strength could be your child’s full strength. In our opinion, this is a weapon masquerading as a toy.”
So what should a person look for when buying a toy? First, says Siff, read the labeling. All of it. “If a toy doesn’t feel right, don’t get it. If you question any part of it, don’t put it in your child’s hand.” Second, examine the toy. Ask the retailer for permission to take a toy out of the package so you can physically handle it. If the retailer refuses, take that as a warning sign. And just because a toy is made by a well-known manufacturer or sold by a well-known retailer doesn’t mean it’s safe. Avoid toys that have instructions that seem unreasonable or don’t make sense.