Playtime safety concerns may have peaked two years ago after lead paint was discovered on toys based on favorite characters such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Curious George, and Dora the Explorer. Largely traced to Chinese manufacturers, the toxic paint led to the recalls of millions of items and passage of 2008's Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.
But there is still "Trouble in Toyland," according to the 25th annual study bearing that name, which was issued Tuesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and state affiliates in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
PIRG said its researchers "readily found examples on store shelves" again this year when they went looking for toxic chemicals and choking hazards in the toy sections of discount chains and other retailers.
The study identified nine toys that it said could expose children to needless hazards such as lead, antimony, or phthalates, chemicals commonly used to make plastics more flexible that have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems.
A spokesman for the Toy Industry Association said PIRG's annual report, issued on the eve of the holiday shopping season, may worry parents more than necessary.
"I think that the way it's presented can be needlessly frightening to parents - even the title of the report, 'Trouble in Toyland,' " said Stacy Leistner, a spokesman for the association, which represents many leading manufacturers.
Leistner said the report's analysis of toy-related deaths, based on data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, showed that toys were largely safe and getting safer. PIRG counted 12 deaths last year, the fewest since 2003; seven were linked to "riding toys" and scooters.
"We're pleased that PIRG and the CPSC have each found what the toy industry already knew - that the toys on the shelf are safer than they've ever been," Leistner said.
Megan DeSmedt, state director of PennPIRG, said the industry and regulators had made improvements but should not rest on their laurels - or focus only on deaths. PIRG also reported that more than 250,000 children, including 90,000 under age 5, were treated in emergency rooms for toy-related injuries last year, she said.
"We definitely have seen improvements and progress, but there's still a lot of work to be done," DeSmedt said.
One area PIRG hopes to address is choking hazards. The report says a Washington-area 1-year-old nearly choked on one of the toys on this year's list, Haba's Lokmock or Baby's First Train, even though the toy meets current safety standards.
The toddler's windpipe was blocked by a peg that passes the CPSC's test, which requires that small parts not fit through a test cylinder with a diameter of 1.25 inches, DeSmedt said. She said the mother dislodged the peg by performing the Heimlich Maneuver.
DeSmedt said the part would not have passed a home version of the choke-safety test, in which parents are advised to make sure questionable parts can't pass through a cardboard toilet-paper roll, which measures about 1.5 inches. She said PIRG was calling for a new standard of 1.75 inches - the limit for balls sold for children under 3.
"The way I think about this is that one death associated with a toy is one death too many," DeSmedt said.