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Choking hazards top list of toy dangers, consumer group says

A toy doll is shown during a hazadous toys news conference held by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, December 1 in Washington, DC. [Getty Images]
A toy doll is shown during a hazadous toys news conference held by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, December 1 in Washington, DC. [Getty Images]
Published Dec. 2, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Add Hello Kitty and Dora the Explorer to the list of culprits that could ruin Christmas.

The annual holiday survey by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, released Monday, found choking hazards and toxic chemicals in a variety of items, some with famous faces.

The list includes dollar-store sheriff badges with high lead levels, balloons that could get stuck in children's throats and tiny batteries that, if ingested, could burn holes through their stomachs. Hello Kitty hair clips sold at Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores made the list, as did Dora the Explorer backpacks from Walgreens, for containing too-high levels of phthalates, a type of chemical linked to reproductive development problems, the report says.

"The continued presence of these hazards highlights the need for constant vigilance on the part of government agencies and the public to ensure that children do not end up playing with unsafe toys," says the report, titled "Trouble in Toyland."

The report was released the same day as a study in Journal of Clinical Pediatrics, which found that toy-related injuries among children treated in emergency rooms increased by 40 percent from 1990 to 2011. Driving the increase, the medical study found, were foot-powered scooters like the Razor.

The consumer group's Florida arm released its report at a news conference at All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine on Monday in St. Petersburg.

Dr. Joseph Perno, medical director of care coordination and assistant medical director of All Children's emergency center, said in an interview that the ER sees toy-related mishaps all year.

"But this time of year is a great time to bring it to people's attention," he said.

The stakes are high in the United States, according to data cited in the report:

• 4,800 children younger than 13 were treated for battery-related injuries in 2010.

• Between 2009 and 2013, high-powered magnets caused at least 2,900 injuries that were treated in emergency rooms.

• 96 children died from choking on toys from 2001 to 2012.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency charged with protecting people from unsafe consumer products, does not test all toys, as noted by the office of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who was at the press conference.

A Walgreens statement did not address a specific question about the Dora the Explorer backpack but emphasized a broad response to the report. "We continue to work with the vendor and retail community to address product ingredients, and we recently initiated organizational changes that identify this as a key component of our company's broader corporate social responsibility program," the statement says. "We also are working with multiple external parties including laboratories … and other retailers to improve the transparency of product ingredients and chemicals of concern."

Choking is the leading cause of toy-related deaths. Toys that contain small parts — a tiny comb for a doll's hair, for instance — present a choking hazard for children younger than 3. The safety commission defines a small part as anything that fits into an official "choke test cylinder," which has an interior diameter of 1.25 inches and is the approximate size of the fully expanded throat of a child younger than 3.

Federal law bans the sale of toys containing small parts if the toy is intended for use by children younger than 3. In "Trouble in Toyland," researchers found one toy marketed to children younger than 3, the Edushape Textured Colored Blocks, which includes a small part.

Other toys are marketed to slightly older children (ages 3 to 6) but still contain small parts without a warning label. An "Our Generation" doll named Sydney Lee, for instance, includes a very small yo-yo that could choke a child, the report says.

According to the report, balloons pose the most serious choking hazard. Children can suffocate by accidentally inhaling the balloons or pieces of them. Forty percent of all toy-related choking fatalities reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission involved balloons, the report says.

Another big problem is children swallowing tiny "button" batteries often found in sound-producing toys or holiday cards that play music. Perno said it's almost like swallowing a coin, except the battery can leak acid and eat through a kid's esophagus. All Children's has treated children who suffered long-term damage as a result of such injuries.

Perno points to another risk: magnets, common in novelty items and also found in TV remote controls, action figures, board games and train sets. Young children may mistake the magnets for candy. A single magnet may pass through the digestive system without incident. But if a child consumes at least two magnets, Perno said, "they try to find each other." And they, too, can tear through intestinal walls.

In 2013, a 19-month-old girl died after seven small magnetic balls perforated her bowel, leading to infection.

So should cautious parents invest only in a nice set of wood blocks this year? Perno said there are plenty of good toys on the market, particularly those with reputable brand names and made in the United States, rather than China. But as with all things, he said, common sense must prevail.

Do you have a 5-year-old child and a baby? Make sure the 5-year-old doesn't play with toys inappropriate for younger kids when his baby sister is around.

"The most important thing is, buy age-specific toys," he said.

Contact Jodie Tillman at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @jtillmantimes.