Toy Safety…again

Last night I was talking about the new toy season – thinking about getting to share another year’s worth of testing.  I know we don’t make any of these toys, but we do take pride in our list of award winners.  It takes a lot of work to get to those select toys that do what they say they’re going to do–AND they’re fun, well made, and going to enhance your child’s play experience.  While there are definite points of the year when I ponder what I do for a living, at the end of the day my mother and I really love finding great products. Our network of family testers take their work seriously and we love the feedback we get from the play trenches!

So you can imagine my dismay this morning. I was barely awake when I saw a reporter on tv with a new set of toys being recalled.  I thought (hoped) that I was still asleep. But no, it was real and even more alarming one of our scheduled award winners was on the list.   All of my happy thoughts about kicking off a new season without the upset of recalls was gone.  Fisher-Price voluntarily recalled 10+ million plus toys and equipment for kids.

The issue this year is not lead or pvc — but small parts.  Now if you’ve read my blog you know this has been an on going worry for us.  In this case the issue is small parts potentially breaking off and posing a choking hazard–but we have been observing small parts that are meant to be there.  Small parts that just stick out of the official choke tube but fall in a toilet roll center (the at-home test recommended by the CPSC).

As always we encourage parents to trust their instincts. If something looks too small or is too loud or is too rough (we had lots of splinter issues this year as well)….take the toy back.  If you have kids that mouth their toys, keep a toilet roll near by.  Put away questionable pieces for the time being.

Lead: How much of an issue?

We are still working with toy companies to get everyone on the same page in terms of lead content as part of our review process–in fact I believe we are making really great progress which we will share as we get closer to the fall.  My question, its been almost a year since the whole issue exploded–is it something you’re still thinking about when you go to the toy store?   Are there other safety concerns that you feel need to be addressed?

Wooden Trains…an interesting twist from Plan Toys

It’s really unfortunate that wooden trains have taken such a hit this past year. Wooden trains are one of our favorite play experiences for preschoolers. Putting down tracks is really an open-ended puzzle (hence our recommendation to stay clear of play tables that recommend gluing down tracks). If you’ve ever watched a preschooler work at the process of putting the tracks down, you can almost sense the brain power involved. I’ve also discovered that somewhere around four, most kids are far better at figuring out the tracks than their parents!

Since Brio was acquired by K’nex, the train line has taken a back seat to their core business. Sure there were a couple of new add-ons shown at toy fair, but I miss the “lines” of trains that had interesting themes. Having covered wooden train sets for over seventeen years (how many people can say that?), it’s sad to see how the line has diminished. The lead issue also rocked the world of parents who believed that they were bringing home heirlooms to their kids when they bought pricey bridges and sets from Learning Curve’s Thomas the Tank Engine line.  The bridges, stations, and other accessories are always great from this line. It will be interesting to see if they can regain the trust of parents.

So you can imagine that we were pretty happy to see Plan Toys new Road and Rail set. The handsomely designed station also converts into the storage box for the whole set (pretty neat). We look forward to testing this set. Plan Toys had a number of sleekly designed wooden play settings (garage, airport, etc.) that have that level of design you won’t mind having out in your home. The company also reports that they are phthalates and lead free. We look forward to testing these sets when they’re ready.

Kudos to Toys R Us and Wal-Mart

We were delighted with today’s news that both TRU and Wal-Mart have raised the bar on safety standards for toys.  Not waiting for Congress to act, these two super retailers are moving the industry along in producing safer products.Both retailers are joining California in banning phthalates (a softener added to plastics that has been linked to serious health risks) and reducing the levels of surface coated lead way below the current federal standard of 600 ppm (parts per million) to 90 ppm.  What’s left?  We will continue to call for the same reduction in embedded lead.  Only the state of Illinois regulates the levels of embedded lead (requiring toys sold in the state to have levels below 600 ppm).  The CPSC reports that a child died from lead poisoning after ingesting a charm that had excessive levels of embedded lead.  This is a real risk that also needs to be addressed in all products for children.We need the government to follow the market–set the standards and require mandatory testing. 

Toy Safety: What has changed?

On the upside, there is a great deal of testing going on across the industry.  In part, retailers have increased the pressure on suppliers to verify that their products meet federal regulations.  More testing has meant continued fall out.  Since the beginning of the new year, ten more products have been recalled due to excessive lead content.  While toy industry folks are quick to point out that there are thousands of products on the market, it’s not such a big number–it is important to remember that under current guidelines, companies are not required to recall toys with excessive levels of embedded lead.  The federal guidelines only address surface coated paint that has excessive lead content.

So what has changed?  More testing, yes.  And while there is legislation pending in Congress, nothing has been passed.  The leading toy industry association has indicated that it will release its own recommendations for testing standards but has not done so yet.  Perhaps it will be part of their toy fair media work.

The answer, therefore, is that there is a lot of forward motion, but no touchdown (I oddly miss football this week). The industry remains on its own, the CPSC has not been given additional resources or legislated bite to its enforcement abilities, and the media has lost interest to a large extent.

What’s a parent to do?  Stay on top of the recalls (you can register for email alerts at

So what are you buying?

Update: The number of companies that have submitted our safety form indicating that their product has zero lead: zero.

The big issue this holiday season for reporters (and retailers)…is whether the lead safety issue will affect our buying patterns. Soon the numbers will reveal themselves, but I think the question is wrong.

If everyone buys the same number of toys, does that mean it doesn’t matter whether we have toys with dangerous levels of lead? If consumers buy more made in the USA products, does that send a message to the majority of companies that manufacture overseas? Once the holidays are over, will the coverage end?

Thanks for the calls/ No new Oppenheim Toy Portfolio for this year

We are getting lots of calls and emails from folks looking for our 2008 book. As we let people know on our website a few weeks ago, we have decided not to publish our book this year because of the lead safety issues. I have a feeling that a lot of the people calling in may not visit the website–so this may not be the best way to get the word out either. We’re hoping that the list on the website of Lead-Free* Platinum Award winning toys will be helpful this holiday season. In the meantime, please check out our Read It! Play It! series that focuses on fostering a love a reading with a great reading list for each age group and related (fun) activities that extend the book experience. The Read It! Play It! with Babies and Toddlers is now available in Spanish.

Hot Toys- not this year

Perhaps one of the upsides to our collective focus on toy safety this year–the absence of a hot toy. With the news cycles focusing on the latest recalls, there really hasn’t been room for soft and fuzzier stories about the hot toy. As much as Elmo tried, he couldn’t giggle his way to center stage this season.

While we often have some hot toys on our list, most know that featuring the heavily promoted toy of the season isn’t our function. The reality is that a hot toy is not necessarily a great toy and certainly not a toy for everyone. A few years ago when Furby took off (in large part to a pre-market article in Wired Magazine) we were struck by the number of people trying to hunt Furby down for their kids–even though Furby’s gremlin like character would be frightening to most younger kids. Even though no child had played with the Furby when the article put the creature on the map. Quickly we learned that “hot” often has more to do with adult collectors on Ebay than a truly kid-driven craze. It can happen (Beanie babies, Cabbage Patch, the original Tickle Me Elmo!)– but they are few and far between (as most toy makers will tell you).

Now we’re left to wonder as we look around our homes—not whether we have the hot toy–but whether we have safe toys.

Lead in Toys: Companies Complying with Zero Tolerance

A few weeks ago we announced that going forward companies would have to comply with our new safety guidelines when submitting a toy for review. We now require companies to sign off that their product has ZERO lead and ZERO phthalates. This means that the product may not have surfaced coated or embedded lead. Currently the federal government allows up to 600 ppm of surface coated lead and has no regulations as to embedded lead or phthalates. For more details on the differences between the two types of lead, visit We have also indicated to past award winners that if they would like to be listed on a lead free list, they need to supply us with the form.

So far the number of companies that have complied: zero.

We will keep you posted. We will start posting the names of the companies that do comply. A number of companies have been in touch to let us know that they are working on it – but as of today, we have not received a single signed form.

Black Friday- What will it bring in toyland?

The number one question business reporters are asking me this week–will people shop differently this holiday season? I don’t think it’s reasonable to imagine that we’re going to stop buying toys for our kids–but what will people buy? More European toys? More books and videos? On the one hand, fewer toy purchases would send a clear signal to toy retailers and toy makers that we’re serious about toy safety. But do you really want to be the parent that says to your child “we’re making a political statement darling”?