Nov. 26, 2008 -- Since last year's holiday shopping season, huge changes have altered toy safety laws, sparked by numerous recalls that left parents fearful about the products they were buying for their kids.
But that doesn't mean unsafe toys have been removed from stores in time for this winter's shopping season.
"When you have that many recalls, it really calls attention to some holes in the product safety net," Liz Hitchcock, public health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, told ABCNews.com Tuesday.
"That's the really good news," she said. "Unfortunately, many of the protections that were in that very strong bill will not be in effect until next year."
The measure signed into law in August includes new requirements for the amount of lead and plastic-softening chemicals known as phthalates in products meant for kids younger than 12. It also calls for mandatory safety tests and sets forth more ways to keep kids safe in the event of a recall.
But it will be February before several of its provisions that address toxic chemicals take effect. For that reason, PIRG focused on lead and phthalate warnings in releasing its 23rd annual toy safety survey today.
What to Watch Out For
To avoid products made with potentially unsafe chemicals, the group warned parents to stay vigilant about the toys they buy in the weeks ahead.
"While larger retailers in particular have increased their testing of toys and put pressure on manufacturers for early compliance, there still could be trouble in toyland this year," the survey said. "Our researchers continue to examine both discount stores and larger stores for noncompliance. We readily found toxic toys on store shelves."
Specifically, the group advised parents to steer clear of heavy metal jewelry and toys made with PVC plastic. Health groups have also found high levels of lead in vinyl lunchboxes and bibs. The group suggested parents opt for unpainted wooden or cloth toys instead.
PIRG also provided additional tips for parents, saying consumers should not buy magnetic toys for kids younger than 6 and avoid toys with small parts for kids younger than 3. "We urge parents to recognize that not everything that's on a store shelf has been tested before it got there," Hitchcock said. "And not everything that doesn't appear on our list is safe."
Still, several stores have already announced plans to phase out toys with phthalates in them. Toys R Us, for instance, told manufacturers that by the year's end, products for young children sold at its stories must be made without the addition of phthalates.
At the Consumer Product Safety Commission, information and public affairs director Julie Vallese said the commission had been working with toy makers throughout the year to educate them on product safety.
"The CPSC has been investigating and scrutinizing toys throughout the year as we always do," Vallese told ABCNews.com Tuesday. "There have been fewer recalls, and the agency has seen fewer recalls from lead."
The Toy Industry Association also released a statement Tuesday reassuring customers that toys are safe.
"Toy safety is the No. 1 priority for the toy industry, and the industry has been working year-round to regain consumer confidence," TIA said.
"With all that's going on, the same old advice for parents and consumer applies to ensure safe play: Shop for brands you know at retailers you trust, and especially when there are young children in the home, read and follow age labeling on toys. Demonstrate safe play for your child and supervise play," TIA added.
Could Provisions of Law Be Delayed Beyond February?
Even after the Feb. 10 date called for in the law, some potentially unsafe toys could still be on the market.
Last week, the CPSC's general counsel concluded that manufacturers could keep selling toys already manufactured with phthalate chemicals beyond the date called for in the law. The general counsel made a different decision when it came to lead, because the lead requirement was written as a "ban" while the phthalate requirement was written as a "standard."
In other words, products that exceed the lead limit can't be sold Feb. 11, "but that same date, when it comes to phthalates, is a manufacturing cue not a sales cue," Vallese said.
"Who knows how much inventory these companies have? But they were concerned enough about it to contact the CPSC and say, 'What are we supposed to do with our existing inventory?" Hitchcock said.
The CPSC's decision this week prompted concerned lawmakers to write a letter to the commission asking it to reconsider.
On Monday, lawmakers Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill. wrote to acting CPSC chairman Nancy Nord and CPSC commissioner Thomas Hill Moore calling the decision on phthalates "directly contrary to the plain language" of the law.
Vallese told ABCNews.com Tuesday that "The commission may be willing to work with Congress to have additional or new or clarifying language."
Still, she said, "The legislation, by using the word standard, makes it difficult for the agency to find any other way to enforce the law."