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Treacherous Toys: What’s Safe to Give Kids this Christmas?

Friday, November 30, 2007

In the midst of the holiday hubbub, don't let your safety-consciousness be shoved to the wayside.

Lead, lead, everywhere; choking hazards abound; even some craft beads can metabolize into date-rape drugs if ingested. What’s a parent to do?

It’s high time to talk toy safety, according to John G. Benitez, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Rochester and Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong.

“This time every year, we receive calls from concerned parents about lead, decorations, even plants,” said Benitez, who also serves as managing director of the Ruth A. Lawrence Poison and Drug Information Center, located within the university’s medical center. “This year, we expect to field questions about toys, too.”

With all the holiday hubbub – prepping for house guests, making food, not to mention gauntlet of shopping and wrapping – sometimes, that extra step to consider the age-appropriateness of a present is something that falls to the wayside, Benitez said.

But in the wake of millions of unsafe toys being recalled in recent months – most of those toys made in China – it’s more important than ever that shoppers be safety-minded.

So, before you cross off your list, check it twice; you’ll want to be especially aware of the following flaws, which have won some toys spots on this year’s naughty list:

Electric toys

“Especially for younger kids, we typically regard toys with batteries superior to toys that must be plugged into outlets,” Benitez said. “But now, the trick is to make sure the compartment that holds them is secure, so kids don’t jimmy it open and pop small batteries in their mouths.”

Batteries can cause a complete airway obstruction, or, even more likely, they can become lodged in the esophagus, where they can cause chemical burns that potentially lead to perforation, severe illness or even death.

To prevent this, opt for battery compartments fastened with screws, not snap coverings.

“Also, some battery charging units have been reported to overheat, overcharge and pose risk for burns or fires,” he said.  

Toys containing lead paint

A stealthy toxin, lead poisons silently, often with few recognizable symptoms. Still, it can affect nearly every system in the body, causing learning, behavior and health problems in developing children, as well as blood pressure and kidney ailments in adults. A health care provider can provide a simple blood test to determine overexposure.

“Though it’s not an acute problem, a child who only touches or plays with a toy containing lead paint is not at serious risk. A child needs to actually ingest or inhale the particles, so it’s the chewing or sucking on the toy over time that poses the threat,” Benitez said.

Still, it’s best to avoid such toys altogether, he added, which means gift givers should check with the Consumer Product Safety Commission or other informational resources on toy safety before they make purchases.

Toys with small parts or magnets

“Toys with small parts or magnets that might come loose can pose risk for choking or suffocation,” Benitez said. “There have been cases where two magnets find each other in the intestinal tract, leading to tears or even blockage, which can be fatal.”  

Especially if a child is 3 years old or younger, if the object is smaller than 1.75 inches in diameter, nix it, Benitez said.

“Remember, even toys that don’t merit a recall might be dangerous if they’re not age appropriate,” he said. “A toy safe for grade school child is not recommended for a toddler. Expect that little ones who have older siblings will break the rules and mosey into their big brother or sister’s stuff; shop with the whole family in mind.”

On that note, it’s a good idea to beware strangulation hazards, such as pull-string toys, he added.

Other seasonal safety reminders

Of course, no talk of holiday safety is complete without reminding parents to watch what goodies they hang on the tree.

“Until kids are old enough to catch on, it’s best not to place food-type decorations on the tree – edible trimmings only add to the confusion of what’s safe to pop in your mouth, what’s not,” Benitez said.

And, it’s especially important to keep close watch on kids during a flurry of out-of-town visitors.

“In big groups, families tend to assume someone else is watching the kids, so it’s prime time for little ones to slip off and get into trouble,” Benitez said. “Especially watch grandparents’ purses or travel bags, which often contain easy-to-access medications. We’re guaranteed to get dozens of those calls this season, too.”

If you have questions or concerns this holiday season, don’t hesitate to dial 1-800-222-1222; no matter where you’re located, the number routes to the center nearest you, connecting you with free help from local experts.

For more information regarding poison and toy-safety this season and year-round, visit the Ruth A. Lawrence Poison and Drug Information Center’s Web site.

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