Unsafe at Any Age

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

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

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