Bad toys: What, and how, not to buy for the 2021 holiday season

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Last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized hundreds of Lagori 7 Stones toys, a popular game in which kids toss a ball at seven stacked, square stones to knock them down. A lab analysis found the toys were coated in lead, cadmium and barium — heavy metals that can impair the brain and nervous system, make breathing difficult and lead to numbness and paralysis.

Last year, the European Commission issued safety alerts about counterfeit L.O.L. Surprise! dolls containing phthalates, a chemical that softens plastic but is also an endocrine disruptor that can impact the reproductive and immune systems. The chemical also was found in counterfeit Disney Frozen II dolls.

Clip Clop Infant Activity rattles were recalled in April by the Consumer Product Safety Commission because the plastic handle could come loose, freeing small beads that could choke a baby if swallowed. The trumpet toy in the Janod Confetti Live Musical Set was recalled in January because small parts could come loose and do the same. But both recalled toys could be found on e-Bay this holiday season.

“As millions of Americans purchase toys before the year ends, they can take comfort in the improvement of toy safety in recent years,” said the 36th annual “Trouble in Toyland” report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “These days, toys with safety risks are less likely to be found at traditional retail stores, which stock toys from importers and manufacturers that are required to have a Children’s Product Certificate. … But when shopping on websites that act as the middleman between the customer and the seller, consumers can encounter hidden hazards.”

Traditional retailers must receive that certificate of compliance from the manufacturer before selling a toy, but online middlemen often don’t abide by those rules, the report said. And what’s described in the website listing might not be the toy that arrives at your door.

While bad actors have found success selling fake goods on websites that consumers know and trust, parents and grandparents can avoid the fakes with a little savvy.

And there is some comfort in the bigger picture. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated there were 198,000 toy-related injuries treated at emergency-rooms in 2020 — a sizable drop from previous years, when injury reports ranged from 224,200 to 251,700 per year.

Word to the wise: Beware toys with powerful magnets, small batteries that can be swallowed and cameras that can spy on you, the report said.

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Too-smart toys?

“Smart toys can be a hot item on a children’s holiday list. They can speak with a child, play music and help them learn as they grow. Smart toys also increase security risks, like data being collected on a child, a hacker gaining access through a Bluetooth connection or children being exposed to inappropriate content,” it said. “We’ve seen several high-profile cases of creepy toys that collected recordings of underage children.”

The Mario Kart Live Home Circuit is an augmented reality toy that uses a camera to capture images of the room the game is being played in and turns it into a virtual race course. The game does not allow users to take screenshots or video, “but already people have found means to livestream and record what is displayed on the Nintendo Switch screen.”

Toys that can connect to Bluetooth present safety concerns at a different level, it said. The Singing Machine, a Bluetooth karaoke microphone, doesn’t require a pin code or other verification to connect via Bluetooth.

“This means anyone within a 10-meter connection radius could pair their phone to the toy and start playing audio out of the speaker when the device is turned on. PIRG toy researchers were able to connect to the Singing Machine from outside of their home at about 30 feet away. A bad actor could connect to the device and play anything from an explicit song to a voice recording telling a child to come outside. A darker plot could involve hackers using the toy to talk to other smart devices like Amazon Alexa.”

Fatal attraction

For little kids, magnets are a fun way to explore science. For teens who aren’t allowed to get facial piercings, magnets can mimic the real thing when anchoring studs in the nose and mouth.

But magnets can be inhaled or swallowed, and when two or more attach to parts of the digestive tract, they can cause life-threatening holes to organs, PIRG said.

“The risk that magnets pose to the body remains the same no matter what age a child is,” it said.

Hospitals reported 1,072 cases of magnets ingested over a 10-year period, according to data from the CPSC. One toddler died and 19 required surgery. A 9-year-old girl had to spend six days in the hospital recovering after surgery to repair holes made in her intestine.

High-powered magnets, marketed as “rare earth” magnets, are much stronger than ordinary magnets and pose a serious danger if more than one is ingested, the report warned.

Also beware …

Batteries are another safety risk for kids, and some can cause burns inside the body if swallowed.

Earlier this year, K&M International recalled its Wild Republic Slap Watches because the coin cell battery could fall out and be swallowed. There were 1,843 button battery ingestions in children 6 and younger in 2019, and 1,502 of them required medical treatment, according to the National Capital Poison Center.

(Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Second-hand toys sold with the best of intentions online or at garage sales and thrift stores can be dangerous as well. Safety standards have gotten tougher over the past decade, and older toys may no longer measure up. They may also have been subject to recalls.

Choking hazards are another danger that can be hidden. An 8-month-old boy died in the last year after swallowing a nail-shaped plastic toy from a toy tool set, according to the CPSC, and a 4-year-old girl died after a rubber bouncy ball lodged in her throat. Latex balloons are a real hazard for kids younger than 8; there were three deaths last year related to balloons obstructing a child’s ability to breathe, according to the CPSC.

What to do

Despite hidden dangers, there’s much joy to be had gifting and playing with toys this holiday season. PIRG suggests parents and grandparents take common sense steps while shopping.

For toys with batteries: Make sure the battery compartment closes securely and is protected with something like a screw, so small children can’t open it. If batteries can easily slip out, keep the toy away from kids.

For smart toys: Read the description carefully and understand what technology it uses and how your child will interact with it. Search the toy’s name and manufacturer online to see if either has sparked privacy concerns. Look for approval from the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. If the toy requires online account registration, adults should be present during set up and use a strong password. Share only the bare minimum of personal information needed to make the account. Read the company’s terms and conditions to see how your data will be stored, who has access to it, what happens if the company is hit by a cyberattack and whether it will notify you of any problems found with the toy

Avoiding counterfeits while shopping online: Look at the listing carefully. Descriptions that include misspellings, mislabelings and low-quality pictures are often a big clue. Sellers must post their own profiles, so click on them and see what else they sell, where they’re located and what the feedback is on its products. Remember that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is: Toys that are significantly cheaper than similar items could well be fakes. Turn a critical eye on customer reviews, even and perhaps especially if listings are studded with five-star feedback. Sellers can purchase reviews.

Avoiding recalls: Search what year the toy was manufactured and check for recalls, past and present. If a toy was recalled in the past, a newer version might be just fine, so just ask the seller for the toy’s model number and compare it to what was recalled. If the seller can’t or won’t provide that information, go look for something else.

“Efforts to make toys safer should never stop,” PIRG said. “And parents and caregivers should remain vigilant about the products they allow children to play with.”