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Has this happened to you? You buy a toy or piece of equipment, for your own child or someone else’s, and within a week or two it’s been recalled as unsafe. You feel betrayed and embarrassed and you’re left wondering: how a person can see this coming? How can you choose items for your family that are absolutely safe?

Let’s take a look at the most common features that lead to recalls and how you can spot them before you go through the check-out line.

Hazards in toys come in four main categories: mechanical hazards, hazards of heat, electrical hazards, and hazards based in chemicals or toxins. Heat and electrical hazards appear primarily in toys intended for older children. Any toy that plugs into an outlet or heats up can be dangerous if not used properly. Make certain that you choose toys like these only for children who are old enough to use them responsibly and even then make sure an adult supervises the activity carefully.

Mechanical hazards are everywhere and they are common in toys intended for toddlers and preschoolers. These dangers include choking hazards, sharp edges, pinching hazards, fragile materials, and instability that can lead to a toy toppling over onto a child. The most common choking hazards are latex balloons and rubber balls. Make certain that children younger than 8 do not try to inflate a balloon and that bits of broken balloons are picked up quickly so babies don’t get them. Make certain that balls are too large for small children to put into their mouths.

Magnets present a mechanical hazard even for children old enough to know better. Many toys that use magnets use small magnets that are easily swallowed, even brightly colored ones that can be mistaken for candy. If a child swallows a magnet, it’s a serious event. Keep these out of the reach of small children and supervise their use by older children too.

When you purchase a toy, check it over for mechanical hazards. Can the wheels on toy vehicles come off too easily? Are the eyes and noses on stuffed toys embroidered on or attached with glue (embroidered is safer)? If a toy is dropped, will it break into pieces that could be swallowed or could cut a child? Imagine a toy in hard, everyday use and buy only playthings that can stand the abuse.

Chemical hazards presented by toxins are another key problem. The biggest issue here is the use of lead in paint and in cast metal toys and jewelry. Lead is a cheap, easily worked metal that is part of many manufacturing processes. It is difficult to avoid. Yet there is no safe level for lead exposure. Any lead exposure can contribute to developmental delays, even lowered IQ. Lead adds up in the nervous system and in the bones so exposure to lead over time accumulates.

To avoid lead in children’s toys, avoid lead paint and cheap jewelry in metals of unknown origin. Almost all toys recalled by the Consumer Products Safety Commission for lead content originate in China, so avoided Chinese-made playthings – and any toys of unknown origin – as the best way to avoid lead content. At the same time, be wary of handmade toys and artisanal toys if you cannot be certain of the materials used. Clear-coated wooded toys and wooden toys with no finish at all are safe.

According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, two key factors should be top-of-mind in selecting toys: select toys that are age appropriate and supervise toy play carefully. We all think our kids are smarter than other children, more capable and more sensible. But children have little experience. They need us to think ahead for them, by testing toys for loose parts and by monitoring the use of toys with inherent dangers. The most dangerous toys, according to the CPSC, are riding toys of all sorts and accidents with riding toys most often involve motor vehicles – meaning that children ride their bikes and trikes and motorized cards into traffic or across driveways and are hit by cars. Clearly, children need supervision to avoid getting run over!

Buying safe toys for children involves some awareness and some elementary testing. But playing safely with toys involves keeping dangerous toys out of the hands of toddlers and supervising older children in using toys that could be dangerous. Never assume a child knows enough to stay safe without you.


For more information on toy safety, listen to my recent podcast on this subject at

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.