Toy fads that turn into toy controversy have become an annual holiday tradition rivaling fruit cake. So when this year's hot new toy, the Zhu Zhu Pet, seemed embroiled in a scandal all parental eyes were glued to the Internet for updates.
Zhu Zhu Pets, the mechanical hamsters that zoom around on wheels, came under allegations from the California based consumer group GoodGuide that they carried unsafe levels of heavy metals. But the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) cleared the Zhu Zhu pets Dec. 7, saying GoodGuide did not follow standardized testing criteria. GoodGuide later apologized for the incident.
The Zhu Zhu Pets scare appears to have a happy ending, but they briefly became another in a long line of celebrity-status toys that have had caused parents to question their safety.
Magna-Man Magnetic Toy Figures: Could Get Stuck in a Stomach
Magna Man magnetic toys were like the boy's answer to Polly Pocket. Both figurines come embedded with powerful magnets that add a new dimension to the fun.
Polly Pocket could be dragged around through her house with her magnet giving (presumably) little girls the full illusion that Polly was standing on her own. Magna-Man magnetic toys made by MEGA Brands could be even be disassembled and reassembled, magnetic body part by body part.
But come March 2008, CPSC issued warnings that the Magna-Man "Futuristic Warrior" or "Ancient Warrior" themed toys had magnets that could become dislodged and swallowed -- much like the 2006 recall of Polly Pocket toys.
"If things are held together as part of the toy or the game parents have to be really aware, especially with magnets," said Dr. Garry Gardner, chair of chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on injury, violence and poison prevention. Gardner said magnets found in toys pose more danger than the kind often found on a refrigerator.
"They're not just regular magnets, they're really strong magnets," he explained.
CPSC reported no injuries from the Magna-Man toys, but the government organization did receive 25 reports of magnets coming loose on items sold between 2005 and 2007.
"Magnets found by young children can be swallowed or aspirated. If more than one magnet is swallowed, the magnets can attract each other and cause intestinal perforations or blockages, which can be fatal," warned CPSC in the official recall.
Thomas the Train: Carried Lead
In 2007 the Thomas the Train sets reached fad status only for parents to discover some of the little toy trains were hauling lead paint into their homes.
Thomas the Train had made a modern day comeback. Young audiences first say Thomas the Train when he appeared as Thomas the Tank Engine in the 1946 book by Rev. W. Awdry.
Awdry designed the toy train for his son and made up a story to go along with it that he eventually published as a series of books. The entire collection of railroad-themed books became internationally popular.
Although Awdry's book series stopped, the classic toy trains never went away. By the 2000s, Thomas and his friends soared to new popularity through TV, toy and Web site marketing.
Children may be fans, but not all toy experts were.
In June 2007, parents learned that their kids' beloved toy train could actually hurt them. CPSC had to recall two years worth of various Thomas the Train wooden vehicles and train accessories because a manufacturing plant in China had used lead based paint.
"Kids can't understand chemicals. For young children there are all these questions they can't understand --- 'why can't my parent' keep you safe? Why would someone make a toy that would hurt me?' -- it makes the world a scary place," said Diane Levin, author of "The War Play Dilemma" and professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, Mass.
Poison experts say the amount of lead a child could ingest from chewing on a toy train and swallowing paint flakes wouldn't cause many symptoms. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't cause an effect. If a child ingested a high amount of lead, he or she may have irritability, stomach problems or even go into a coma, according to Dr. Marsha Ford, director of the Carolinas Poison Center at Carolinas medical center in Charlotte.
In the case of a small train with lead paint, "What I think would be more of a concern would be not noticing that the child was exposed and then having a negative impact on the child's intellectual abilities," said Ford.
Aqua Dots or Bindeez: Toy that Turned into Date Rape Drug
Before news broke about Aqua Dot (also marketed as Bindeez) chemical problems, the toy was on its way to becoming an international best- seller.
Children could take the tiny beads or dots and place them along a pattern -- perhaps a mermaid or a dog. Add a little water, and the dots would fuse together into a toy.
But the manufacturing plant, allegedly trying to cut cost, left a few children fighting for their lives in November 2007. Ford's clinic saw one of two children known to have fallen seriously ill in the U.S. from swallowing the tiny dots.
"This little boy, about 3-years- old, he ate a bunch of these dots and he went down (lost mental capabilities). He became almost comatose," said Ford. "He was brought into the hospital and he had to be incubated. At some point he threw up about 100 of these dots, but nobody could figure out why they had made him almost comatose."
But eventually Ford said, scientists in Australia had discovered a cheap substitute had been used in making the toy. Instead of the plasticizer, 1,5-pentanediol, the factory substituted 1,4-butanediol, which is derived from butane.
"When it goes into the body, it is converted into GHB (gamma hydroxybutyric acid) which is a date rape drug," she said. According to CPSC, "Children who swallow the beads can become comatose, develop respiratory depression, or have seizures."
Luckily, both children who fell in the United States recovered and a recall was issued in November 2007.
Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kids: Eating Your Child's Hair
Far beyond one year's fad, the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls have reigned supreme since 1983, and hold strong even today. But an innovative twist to the popular doll line in 1997 landed toy maker Mattel Inc. in trouble.
The Cabbage Patch Kids Snacktime Kids doll was a mechanical upgrade of sorts -- a doll that could give the illusion of eating.
The doll came with plastic carrots, plastic bananas and a motor inside the doll's head. When a child shoved a plastic carrot into the doll's mouth, rollers started that imitated chew motions, grabbed the carrot into the doll and deposited it out through the doll's back into a backpack.
Trouble came when 7-year-old girl in Connecticut got her hair caught in the doll's mouth. The doll began eating her hair and would not let go until rescue workers arrived, according to a report in the New York Times. Other children had their fingers trapped by the doll that kept munching and would not let go.
After selling 500,000 dolls in a single year, Mattel and CPSC issued a voluntary recall and refund of $40 for the ravenous dolls.
"We recognize that these incidents can be upsetting to children and adults, and we are pleased with the actions being taken by Mattel," said Ann Brown, CPSC Chairman at the time.
Slap Bracelets, or Slit Wrists?
The famous slap bracelets of the 1990s didn't need holiday shopping to become a fad. The bracelets consisted of a metal ribbon covered by fabric -- often covered in '90s-inspired neon colored design. A child could stretch out the metal ribbon into a flat rectangle give it a tap on the wrist and it would snap and coil into a bracelet.
The original Slap Bracelets were marketed under the Slap Wraps brand, and reportedly invented by a high-school shop teacher from Sun Prairie, Wis. in 1983.
Countless copy cats followed with various, cheaper designs, until reports starting coming in of some children unintentionally cutting their wrists when they "slapped," the wrist bands on.
Schools across the country banned them, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a general warning on the bracelets by Oct. 1990.
While newsworthy, Gardner said such toy hazards are far less common than the usually more problematic toys.
"Choking is the big thing. Magnets are big, projectiles are big," said Gardner.
"But I think the main concern is choking and that small pieces can't come out of the toy," said Gardner. "The rule of thumb is if people picture a toilet paper tube and if a toy or apiece will fit through the tube, then it's too small. That's a fairly big size. If it passes all the way through it is a choking hazard.