A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Christmas shopping means toys for the kids, but beware of unsafe gift items

This is the week after Thanksgiving, and if you survived Black Friday with only sleep deprivation and a couple of bruises you should consider yourself lucky.

Christmas time is what retailers live for, and toys are always a hot item on most people’s shopping list. According to Toy Association.org, the total toy industry is approximately $27 billion in the U.S. market alone and year-end sales data for 2017 shows a 2 percent increase in domestic toy sales from 2016.

So as you continue to cross off your Christmas gift list and shop for those gifts, let me remind you to shop with safety in mind.

If you were a kid who survived growing up back in the 1970s at Christmas time, you probably received toys such as BB guns, magnet sets, marbles, Big Wheels, Slip N’ Slides, pogo balls and sticks, or even Clackers Popper Knockers, all of which had the potential to be dangerous.

Then who could forget Super Elastic Bubble Plastic from Wham-O that consisted of a tube of plastic substance and a thin straw used to blow semisolid bubbles. A pea-sized amount of liquid plastic was squeezed from the tube and made into a tiny ball. One end of the straw was then inserted into the ball, and the user would blow into the other end, inflating the plastic into a bubble if you were lucky enough to avoid popping a blood vessel in your forehead. 

Little did we know then that chemically the bubbles contained polyvinyl acetate dissolved in acetone, with ethyl acetate fortifiers added. Besides the potential for spills when liquid plastic was handled by children, the substance also emitted noxious fumes. The fumes could become concentrated inside the straw, making it dangerous to inhale through the straw while inflating a bubble.

Probably the most dangerous were those perilous yard Jarts — the ’70s version of cornhole today. Those giant-sized darts were a staple in neighborhoods across America, and we would all throw them high into the air and hope they didn’t pierce our skulls. Unfortunately, a reported 6,700 injuries and four deaths resulted from them, and in 1988 the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission banned them entirely from retailer shelves.

As a country, we have a propensity to trust anything wrapped and packaged and put on a store shelf, but we shouldn’t. Thankfully today we have the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is funded by our hard-earned tax dollars to help keep an eye out for our safety, so that we won’t poke ours out.

Toy safety is the practice of ensuring that toys, especially those made for children, are safe, usually through the application of set safety standards. In many countries, commercial toys must be able to pass safety tests in order to be sold. In the U.S., some toys must meet national standards, while other toys may not have to meet a defined safety standard. The danger is often not due to faulty design; usage and chance both play a role in injury and death incidents as well.

Although these toys are meant to provide pleasure and entertainment, toys are often linked to severe injuries and sometimes even death. Most toys on store shelves are safe, but children ages 4 and under are always especially at high risk. While choking accounts for many of these deaths and injuries, children can also suffer from falls, strangulation, burns, drowning and poisoning from chemicals and lead paint while playing with toys today.

Riding toys were associated with seven (54 percent) of the 13 reported deaths in 2017. Six of the riding toy deaths were due to motor vehicle involvement. In 2017, there were an estimated 251,700 toy-related injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments.

As with marbles, another toy that has had a long history as a life-threatening hazard is a magnet set or a toy with magnets. If a child swallows more than one magnet, they can fuse in the intestine, causing a blockage that usually requires surgery. If doctors do not take an X-ray quickly enough and see that there is a need for surgery, you have a very serious health emergency that often results in death.

Toy safety has evolved over the years and a lot of that credit can be attributed to new federal guidelines and the CSPC efforts. But much of it can also be traced to the litigious society in which we live in today. Today, a poorly designed toy could literally bankrupt a company. As a result, toy manufacturers today spend years during the design phase and will employ teams of product safety engineers to avoid such a risk-management nightmare. Think about it: You need a good-sized toolbox and hacksaw just to replace batteries in some toys today.

Thanks to the CSPC, manufacturers, importers, distributors, private labels and even retailers are required to ensure that the packaging for games and toys intended for use by children contains a label or cautionary statement regarding choking hazards.

When a product’s packaging requires a cautionary statement, the advertising for the product, including on Internet sites and in catalogs, must bear the same cautionary statement. There are requirements for the layout, type, language, color, and placement of the statement. Toys today are even labeled for age appropriateness— to help simplify the consumer’s purchasing decision.


As you set out to buy toys this Christmas, remember to follow the following safety tips:
 

• Check the website of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission for updated information and pictures of recalled toys that may be harmful to children.
 

• Buy age-appropriate toys, as indicated by safety labels.
 

• Check regularly for damage to toys, breakage or potential hazards. Make any necessary repairs immediately or discard damaged toys out of children’s reach.
 

• Toys with strings, straps, cords, ribbons and loops can be a strangulation hazard to children. These toys should never be hung in cribs or playpens where children can potentially become entangled.
 

• Electrical toys are a potential burn or shock hazard. Children under 8 years of age should not use toys with a heating element.

Although the majority of toys are safe, they can become dangerous if misused or used by children who are too young for them. With proper use of toys, combined with parental supervision, you can greatly reduce the incidence and severity of such injuries.

If and when you are in doubt as to what gift to buy that child on your list this year, remember you can always take the Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant or even Benjamin Franklin route and just send colorful green pictures of past presidents and statesmen, and leave it up to mom or dad to decide what is best for their children.

Be Safe, My Friends

Keven Moore works in risk management services and is an expert witness. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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