How to Avoid Unsafe Toys

When Rachel Weintraub, a young mother, found out that her 3-year-old son's wooden Thomas the train toy had been pulled off the shelves due to harmful amounts of lead paint, she was concerned.

"I was really worried," she said. "I wiped things down but I was also curious whether lead dust got on to other things." So she took a device that tests for the presence of lead and examined other objects in the house. Thankfully for her and her son and 1-year-old daughter, nothing came up positive.

Weintraub, the director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America, has plenty of expertise in how to prevent her children from being injured by dangerous toys.

What about the hundreds of thousands of parents who also bought Thomas trains for their kids? Or who purchased Fisher-Price's Big Bird, Elmo, Dora and Diego characters, which were recalled last week because their paint contains excessive amounts of lead?

Tuesday Mattel announced the recall of more than 9 million toys, including 1.5 million toy cars, because of lead paint. The Sarge Die Cast toys from the Pixar "Cars" movie assortments were sold individually and in assortment packs throughout the United States.

This is Mattel's second recall involving lead paint in two weeks.

In the wake of recent safety recalls involving toys made in China, how are parents supposed to protect their children?

Most safety advocates say that avoiding toys made in China is not the answer.

First of all, more than 80 percent of toys sold in America are made in China, so it's almost impossible to avoid them. Secondly, "some have parts that are made there," said Weintraub. "With our global economy, when it says 'Made in the U.S.A.,' it probably means it's assembled in the U.S., not that every component was made here."

One parent tried avoiding products made in China for an entire year. Sara Bongiorni catalogued her family's difficulties and frustrations in her new book "A Year Without 'Made in China,'" concluding, "You can still live without it, but it's getting trickier and costlier by the day."

Prescott Carlson, the co-founder of the Imperfect Parents Web site, which includes a recall tracking section, said he has started avoiding Chinese-made toys when he shops for his 4-year-old and 9-year-old children. "It's difficult given their prevalence but there are some German-made toys of better quality or we go to Ikea, though even some of those might have parts made in China."

Given the new caution about toys made in China, parents need to be vigilant about the products they buy for their children and how their children play with the toys.

One recommendation is that parents pay attention to the Consumer Products Safety Commission Web site, which issues recalls for products that could be harmful. Parents can sign up to receive e-mail alerts from the agency.

Another resource is the U.S. Public Interest Group, which offers general tips about buying toys and issues a toy safety report every Christmas.

When it comes to shopping, try to stick with products that are age-appropriate. "There's a common misconception that the age grading is purely about whether the child is ready intellectually," said Cliff Annicelli, the editor of Playthings magazine. "It's really a guide to whether that product is safe."

Also, when buying toys for children under the age of 3, try to avoid toys with small parts that they could choke on or with parts that could easily break off. "Even though my son is 3, I take away any toy with small parts," said Weintraub. "He just received a firetruck with little firemen and I confiscated them."

For kids who spend a lot of time mouthing toys, she recommends using the inside of a toilet-paper tube as a measure of size. Products with parts smaller in diameter should be avoided.

When at home, it's important to segregate toys between children of different ages, said Annicelli. "You do whatever you can to keep toys age-rated for an 8-year-old away from the 3-year-old kid."

When a parent discovers that a toy contains lead paint or has been recalled, "get it out of their hands immediately," said Weintraub. "Take a damp cloth to wipe down any toys that came into contact with the toy."

Most hardware stores sell inexpensive home kits which can be easily applied to toys and change color in the presence of lead paint. Also, it's important to report toys with defective parts or problems to the CSPC and the manufacturer.

Some parents have accepted the fact that it's impossible to guarantee safe toys for their children. "You'll never be able to protect your kids 100 percent, otherwise, you'd live in a saran-wrapped house," said Carlson. "It's a trade-off of modern living — at least we don't have scarlet fever and a wolf coming to eat them."