When you think of the biggest dangers to your children, balloons, robot action figures and toy guitars might not be the first things that come to mind.
But they, and other seemingly fun and harmless products, can pose a major hazard, according to a report released Tuesday by the Public Interest Research Group, a national consumer organization.
Abe Scarr, executive director of the Connecticut branch of PIRG, was at Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford on Tuesday, along with several health experts and child advocates, to present the research group's annual Trouble in Toyland report.
The report includes a list of dangerous toys found on store shelves throughout the country, including those that contain dangerous levels of lead and other chemicals, pose choking hazards or contain powerful magnets that can be hazardous if swallowed.
"Our message today is loud and clear -- we need to protect our littlest consumers from unsafe toys," Scarr said.
He cited a number of strides in improving toy safety, including the enactment of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
However, Scarr said, many problem playthings are still on the market.
Scarr brought several examples of unsafe toys with him, including a popular robot action figure called Morphobot, manufactured by Greenbrier International Inc.
The toy contains 180 parts per million of lead, nearly double the 100 parts per million that is the standard limit for lead, Scarr said.
Exposure to high levels of lead can spur a variety of problems, including learning disabilities and behavioral issues.
Young children are at particular risk for lead poisoning because they frequently put their hands -- and, often, other objects -- in their mouths.
Yet despite the high presence of a potentially dangerous chemical, Morphobot seemed to be an alarmingly popular toy.
Scarr said he and his colleagues tried to find the toy at stores in Hartford, but it had sold out.
They had to go to a New Haven store to find the toy and, even there, found there were just a few Morphobots remaining.
Other examples of dangerous toys included Snake Eggs, a pair of powerful magnets (also produced by Greenbrier International) that are small enough to swallow. Scarr said swallowed magnets can stick together across the intestines, which can cause serious infections and death.
Even a product featuring beloved children's TV icon Dora the Explorer could pose a threat to your kids, according to the report.
Scarr showed off a Dora guitar, made by Fisher-Price, that played at louder than 85 decibels (less than 80 decibels is the recommended noise level).
Loud toys can cause hearing problems, Scarr said.
Toys mentioned in the report also included balloons, which can be choking hazards, and a car key set that makes loud noises.
Now in its 27th year, the Trouble in Toyland report has led to at least 150 recalls. However, not all are fans of the report.
The Toy Industry Association, a not-for-profit trade organization representing more than 580 businesses in the toy industry, issued a statement calling the report "needlessly frightening.
Its headlines cry for caution, but the fine print clarifies that most of the products on their list actually comply with the strict toy safety standards that are already in place in the United States."
Indeed, Scarr said many of the toys on PIRG's list technically comply with regulations.
For instance, some of the toys pegged as choking hazards are slightly too big to fit into a plastic "choking tube" used to determine whether something is a danger.
But, Scarr and others said, they're still small enough for a child to choke on.
Scarr said PIRG and others have been working for some time to increase the standard for what is deemed a choking hazard.
In the meantime, Scarr said, if a toy fits in an everyday toilet paper tube, parents should assume it's small enough for a child to swallow or choke on.
Dr. Scott Schoem, director of otolraryngology (also known as ear, nose and throat) at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, also spoke at Tuesday's event and said choking is a particular worry in his line of work.
"The sad reality is, one child dies every five days from choking," Schoem said.
Thus, he worries about the presence of toys such as cars with tiny, detachable wheels that can be easily swallowed, as well as those tiny "button batteries" that are used in everything from wristwatches to musical cards.
"It's round, it's flat, it's wide enough that it won't fit through your esophagus and it's in every home I know of," Schoem said.
Also present at the conference was U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who said the report is particularly relevant at this time of year, as families begin shopping for holiday gifts.
"Consumers are about to be deluged with a major storm -- an advertising storm," he said.
With the holiday hysteria approaching, Blumenthal said, parents need to realize that the toys they're buying might carry unintended risks to their loved ones.
"Playthings can result in hospital time, not just playtime," he said.
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