Over the past few months, reports of defects in children's toys and equipment have left parents to wonder: Are the incidents an aberration, or a signal that the '90s nursery is unsafe?
Consider these recent warning signs:
After dozens of Cabbage Patch Kids Snacktime dolls munched on the hair or fingers of children playing with them, Mattel pulled the line from stores.
Playskool offered to replace parts of 280,000 highchairs because the plastic restraining bar tends to snap, having caused at least 40 young children to topple to the floor.
When the tiny wheel hubs on Tonka's Soft Walkin' toy vehicles began to separate from their axles, creating a potential choking hazard, Tonka recalled 1-million of the little cars and trucks.
Even so, in interviews over the past few weeks, the representatives of the Toy Manufacturers Association, consumer groups and government agencies agreed that most products are safer than ever because of tighter regulations and industry appreciation of the publicity value of safe toys.
The greatest danger lurking in today's nursery, they say, is lax supervision and indifference toward both the age-appropriateness of toys and the warning labels on products.
For example, some 121,000 children under 14 were taken to emergency rooms for toy-related injuries in 1995, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign, a 9-year-old program that aims to prevent childhood injuries. But most emergencies were caused by inappropriate behavior _ say, riding a tricycle so close to the curb that it tips over _ rather than by defective toys, said Dr. Heather Paul, executive director of Safe Kids in Washington.
Toys are subject to increasingly strict scrutiny, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission's "use and abuse" test, which includes repeatedly dropping a toy four feet and tugging at small parts. If the toy breaks, it is not allowed in stores.
In addition, tighter federal safety laws, such as the 1995 Child Safety Protection Act, require retailers and manufacturers to report any hazard to the commission as soon as it surfaces, even if no injuries have occurred, or face a maximum $125-million penalty for violating product safety laws.
But even the safest toys can be unsafe if family members and babysitters do not act responsibly. Children also must be taught more about the dangers, experts say.
The main concern of toy makers and industry observers is that parents do not read the warning labels, although they agreed that some blame lies in the baffling charts or convoluted instructions that often accompany a product. So some manufacturers are working to eliminate assembly where possible.
Even when the warnings are legitimate, printed in big letters and clearly worded, "parents don't bother to read them," said Wendy Shindler, a trauma nurse who is the coordinator of the Queens chapter of the National Safe Kids Campaign.
Parents are also "rushed," said Karen DiCapua, director of the Connecticut chapter of Safe Kids. "It's hard to get their attention."
This is so, the commission said, even though warnings have been expanded to include the reasons a toy should not be bought: "choking hazard," "sharp edges and points" or "adult assembly required."
Sometimes, DiCapua and Shindler said, misguided parents or grandparents dismiss age recommendations because they think their child is brighter than average, or will "grow into it." But a child's coordination or finger size may not have kept pace with intellectual development. So the child can become frustrated or hurt.
Consider the predicament of Melina Crews of Westport, Conn., who was surfing the shelves of her local Toys "R" Us store one recent afternoon while trying to keep an eye on her two lively children, 4-year-old Mark and 7-year-old Stephanie.
"You are so busy monitoring the kids," she said as she glanced back and forth to make sure she knew where they were, "that you can't always stop to look at the labels."
On top of that, she complained, the warnings "aren't readily apparent." She pointed to the box of a pirate game she was holding, which had a warning label in a bottom corner that had almost disappeared from view: it was printed in the same shade of blue as the box.
Further, she noted, the typeface on the age-appropriate label in another corner was less than a quarter-inch high.
An informal survey of that store also showed the warning labels were printed in English only, with a single Spanish exception, leaving the growing number of foreign-speaking parents to fend for themselves.
In the end, Crews relied on her own judgment, peering through the cellophane wrapper and considering the tiny plastic pirate figures. It seemed safe enough. She decided to buy the game.
Toy safety tips
The Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Safe Kids Campaign offer parents these suggestions for buying toys that will not cause child injuries:
Check for sturdy construction, even when buying an expensive toy. Be sure eyes, buttons and ribbons are well attached.
If a toy readily falls apart at home or seems dangerous, the Consumer Product Safety Commission can be alerted by calling (800) 638-2772.
Strings, straps or cords should never be longer than seven inches.
If a child is younger than 8, avoid electric toys with heating elements or sharp edges and points.
Remind older children to keep toys such as chemistry sets or makeup kits away from toddlers and babies.
Inspect older toys regularly for jagged edges, broken parts or decorations that may have become loose.
And, they add, always take time to teach children how to use a toy safely.