Unsafe at Any Age

Toys kill 19,000 children every year, yet toy safety regulation is spotty and inadequate.

December 1973By Comments

IF SALES GO WELL THIS December, Americans will spend half of the $4 billion they spend annually on toys. And our children will gleefully play with their new toys—at least until the novelty wears off—unless their toys kill or cripple them first.

We’re not used to thinking of toys as killers or cripplers; nor do we cast the same suspicious eye toward the 1600 American toy manufacturers who ship 150,000 types of toys to one million retail outlets around the country. Yet the U.S. Public Health Department and the U.S. Commission for the Blind tell us another story: This year 700,000 children will be hurt in toy-related accidents and an equal number will be injured in playground-related accidents (200,000 on slides and 500,000 on swings). Of these 1,400,000 accidents, 40,000 children will be permanently crippled and 19,000 will be dead.

Most of the hazardous toys, excluding playground equipment, that maim and kill fall into the following categories: Rattles that contain small objects which can be swallowed and those that fragment when broken; squeeze toys that have sharp or dangerous objects or sound-makers which can be swallowed; dolls that contain pins to hold them together; or stuffed animals that have removable and dangerous parts. Although none of the hazards mentioned above seem very dangerous, they account for half of the toy-related accidents.

Seemingly innocent rattles, squeeze toys, and stuffed animals can be as dangerous as other categories of hazardous tops such as musical toys that have sharp and dangerous parts; or projectile toys. Projectile toys include assorted darts, guns, and projectiles such as rockets which zoom 300 feet into the air or zoom just as easily into the neighborhood kids.

It is not so easy, however, to know the damage that results from thermal hazards like plastic balloon kits (complete with labels warning about flammability and toxicity) that manage to burst into flames and drip napalm-like plastic when accidentally ignited. If inhaled, their acetone fumes can cause brain damage, and if eaten they can be poisonous. It’s difficult to believe the label on the box that claims “It’s Fun.”

These toys are fun, almost as much fun as the last hazardous category, electrical toys. Electrical toys are in a class by themselves, since they can electrocute if immersed in water. But their danger does not stop here. Some toy ovens are heated by electric light bulbs that can be removed by a child who then inserts a finger into the empty socket. (If the child is grounded the shock can be lethal.) Even if the ovens are heated by an electric coil, a touted safety improvement, fingers can be badly burned for the metal surfaces inside the oven heat up to 400 degrees. Although many of these ovens have metal safety latches to keep children from touching the inside, the doors can be removed easily; in testing, however, many doors simply fell off.

Such toy hazards prompted the Consumers Union and the Johnson Administration to take action on toy safety. The Consumers Union and the Presidential Commission on Product Safety culminated their investigations and research with recommendations for Congressional legislation. But their efforts were considerably weakened through the lobbying efforts of the Toy Manufacturers of America, Inc.

Despite such obstacles the Child Protection and Toy Safety Act became law in December 1969. This act enabled the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to make regulations banning interstate commerce with any “toy or article intended for use by children if it represents an electrical, mechanical, or thermal hazard by causing an unreasonable risk of personal injury or illness.” The responsibility for enforcing the law rests with the Food and Drug Administration and its newly created Bureau of Product Safety. The FDA can also seize toys and make regulations so that wholesalers, retailers, and consumers can have their ill-spent money refunded.

Once the legislation on toy safety was passed, the student-staffed Public Interest Research Group in Washington, D.C., and its affiliates in several states, including Texas, kept a watch on the FDA’s progress. What this consumer-oriented watchdog group saw was a slow-moving bureaucracy with under-staffed departments and field offices, whose promulgation of new laws and enforcement procedures were and are inadequate. At the end of fiscal 1972, $1.2 million budget saw the formulation of one FDA regulation. (It controlled pacifiers, although, in all fairness, several other studies were in the works.)

What the PIRG’s saw at the federal, district, and regional levels, for fiscal 1973, was only a slight improvement. That year 322.40 man years were allocated to product safety, for the entire nation. This field force, which as of August 1972 included only 18 product safety consultants and four inspectors nationwide, implemented programs for food, drugs, veterinary medicine, and product safety. They also checked manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers. In short, the FDA is still understaffed and it cannot enforce the law. But more to the point on product safety for toys, an FDA representative in Dallas told Tex-PIRG that many Texas cities will never be visited for product safety checks; and that in large cities “We definitely can’t check all the stores, we don’t have the personnel to even begin to attempt that—the best we can do is to try to interrupt at the manufacturing level. But at that important level, for instance, inspection is very weak.”

One reason for the slow progress of the FDA is that they focus on consumer education and public relations at the expense of real progress in regulation and enforcement. We read in our newspapers and see or hear messages on our TVs and radios warning parents to watch out for dangerous toys. But since the toy industry does not pre-test toys before they are marketed, the burden of watching falls on the consumer. Caveat Emptor.

But, if you don’t know what can happen when you buy a toy it’s hard to beware. And because they realize the limitations of caveat emptor, and because they realize that inspection, legislation, and regulation of toy safety at the federal level are inadequate, some states and cities have been adopting their own safety regulations. (The Chicago City Council enacted what is generally considered the model for toy safety standards.) At the state level, Massachusetts, California, and Wisconsin all have enacted toy-safety regulations.

And here at home, during the last legislative session, Representative Charles Tupper sponsored a Toy Safety bill (H.B. 460) which passed the house, 135 to 0. That same bill, sponsored on the Senate side by Senator Tati Santiestaban, was defeated in Committee on a roll call vote, 19-11, largely through the efforts of Senator John Traeger, himself an owner of an appliance store in Seguin which also sells toys.

Senator Traeger called the bill a “piece of garbage,” and said that federal regulation was already adequate, that the bill would “open the retail merchant up to a lot of harassment,” and that it would allow a “bunch of students to put a man out of business.” His words echo in part the language of the Toy Manufacturers of America, Inc. They also raise the specter of governmental regulation forcing the small enterprising businessman out of work. H.B. 460; the responsible work of the student PIRG’s (both in Texas and nationally) on toy safety; the lax state of federal regulation; and the casualty statistics for children all contradict Senator Traeger’s claims.

And all add up to the need to fill the legislative void, for in Texas we are left again with caveat emptor. Wondering if that would work I went armed with the FDA list of banned toys to my favorite toy store. Although it, like the many retail outlets in this country, had sold dangerous toys, unknowingly, the store voluntarily removed those toys from the shelf last year, at least for the holiday season. But those toys were on the shelves again. In addition to the banned toys on those shelves there were other toys that looked questionable and good-looking toys that I knew were banned. I felt like Pollyanna overwhelmed by consumer shock.

Where would I begin to be aware of what was going on in that store? I certainly was not going to run my own flammability tests by dropping lit matches in the toy or clothing departments. I was not going to break open boxes to look for sharp objects or dangerous edges. Nor was I going to eat the paint from a toy to see if it was toxic. That much of a Pollyanna I’m not. Nor was I going to examine all the foreign toys that do not come under FDA regulation. Even knowing what toys were banned, I, like the FDA inspector, would have difficulty knowing or learning which toy was redesigned and safe and which was just the same old toy wolf in sheep’s packaging.

So back to the beginning, for caveat emptor doesn’t work. Behind all the plush is the real issue of toy safety—how much risk should a child be allowed in play? And who should decide it—the child, parent, local, federal, or state governments? To consider this question we need to think about play itself. And for those of us who have forgotten what it is and for those of us who consider it useless activity, related to the devil’s plaything, psychologist Jean Piaget reminds us with detail and precision that play forms a vital part of the education and growth of a child, that children select their own play objects and create their own games as a means of perceiving, testing, and coping with their environment.

More to the point, he says that the toys, games, and rituals children play are directly made up from their environment and from toys, or objects, within their environment. And that environment, that knotty nexus of consumer ignorance and toy manufacturers’ profits as it now exists in America and in Texas endangers the physical safety of the children within it.

And it will be 1975, many deaths later, before the bill can come up again for consideration in Texas. But we will be reminded to beware when we buy, to watch our federal standards steadily improve, and to look to our local legislatures. And so it will go.

What You Might Do

If you are concerned about the environment as it has been shaped for your child by the Toy Manufacturers of America, Inc., by your limitations as an intelligent consumer, and by governmental regulation and enforcement at all levels, you have several options for action.

At the individual level, parents should not feel too helpless about protecting their child against dangerous toys. You can read about the wide range of children’s toy hazards, beginning with Massachusetts attorney Ed Swartz’s book Toys That Don’t Care. Or return any banned toy or any other toy that breaks right after the holidays to the retailer and demand a refund.

If you still want action, you can note advertising and packaging devices which exploit your child as a consumer and write a letter of protest to the Federal Trade Commission, FDA, or the toy manufacturer. Finally, when your child is injured by a toy, file a law suit against the manufacturer and the retailer. These individual cases help lawyers to strengthen their arguments when they push for better laws. Or write for your free copy of the Banned Toy List at the FDA Regional Office in Dallas, or to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Food and Drug Administration, Bureau of Product Safety, 5401 Westbard Avenue, Bethesda, Maryland 20016. Or even lobby Parents Magazine and Good Housekeeping to make their seals guarantee safety, not just money-back breakage guarantees.

On the state level, you can write to the Governor asking him to consider rehearing the Toy Safety Bill before the 1975 session, or write to those Senators who voted against the bill.

On the federal level, you can contact your local PIRG and ask for a copy of their toy safety report and decide which, if any, of their recommendations for action you would like to take.

These are only a few suggestions, by no means solutions, for the concerned parent. But what of the children who are responsible for one-third of all toy purchases? But what of the child whose pajamas may be as flammable and as fatal as the toys they open?

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