Dear Santa,Unfortunately, new regulations that protect children from toys that have higher levels of lead or controversial chemicals called Phthalates won't go into effect until next year. So toys that will be deemed unsafe come February, or later in the year where phthalates are concerned, could still be on the shelves this Christmas. Phthalates make vinyl and other plastics soft and pliable. Teethers are the most controversial items they've been used to manufacturer because they're meant to be put in children's mouths where the chemicals can be readily absorbed into tiny bodies. Lead makes toys shiny, bright and attractive. But it tends to dim developing brains. Next year, toys containing lead at a level of 600 parts per million will be banned and the limit will gradually lowered to 100 ppm. The amount of lead allowed in the paint on toys will be lowered in February from 600 ppm to 90. Stores and toymakers have known for a while that these standards are coming, but the toy industry does 65% of its business between the Friday after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, according to the not-for-profit group Safe Kids Worldwide. So some manufacturers and stores have inventory kicking around that doesn't meet these new standards. According to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal, they're hoping to unload this inventory by selling those toys to you this year. What's the parent of an Elmo, Dora-the-Explorer or Barbie fan to do? Alan Korn, director of policy for Safe Kids says that major companies like Mattel ( MAT - Get Report) that got into trouble last year for troublesome toys are likely to be especially vigilant this year to protect their reputations and bottom line. "Mattel paid a huge price by not paying attention to this. If they haven't learned their lesson they're facing a huge financial and health disaster."
For Christmas this year I would like teethers and other toys I can chew that don't have any of those chemicals that could potentially disrupt my hormones, cause liver damage or contribute to asthma. I'd also like fun, brightly colored toys and play jewelry that don't contain icky lead that causes brain damage.
As a result, he says, "We should see a better marketplace this year than we have in the past. " He might be right. The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced earlier this month that recalls are down more than 45% so far this year over last year. Recalls of toys specifically for lead content fell by more than half. A big factor in this downtick is that earlier this year, Toys R Us and Wal-Mart ( WMT - Get Report) imposed stricter standards and more testing on the toys that come into their stores in anticipation of the legislation that followed. Where the big-box retailers go, the manufacturers hoping to sell to them will follow. But what about those soon-to-obsolete toys that might still be lingering on shelves this holiday season? Korn has some advice for avoiding them. He suggests buying from "reputable retailers" who stand to lose a lot from the bad publicity of selling unsafe toys. "That means the big boxes like Toys R Us, Wal-Mart and Target ( TGT - Get Report)," he says. "But it also means the mom-and-pop stores that are very much a part of the community and err on the side of caution when it comes to keeping products on their shelves or taking them down." He also suggests looking for toys that are made in the U.S. or Europe. "By and large the problematic toys come from Asia and China," he notes. For his kids, this year he bought board games like Trivial Pursuit and some video games. And he suggests that other parents do the same.
"There are certain types of toys that by and large haven't had problems over many years and you want to migrate toward those," and away from potentially problematic ones. These include board games, books, unpainted wood puzzles and jigsaw puzzles, building blocks like Legos and Lincoln Logs, video games and stuffed animals. He says that toys for toddlers are the biggest concern because these products inevitably wind up in children's mouths. So parents buying for the teething set should especially look for cloth and unpainted wooden toys or hold out for reputable brands that don't use plastic or have been public about removing phthalates from their products. There's no easy way to do this other than to carefully check labels and research brands online before heading out to the stores. Korn also recommends that all parents sign up for email alerts about recalls, which you can do through Safe Kids or the Consumer Products Safety Commission. That way, if a toy you've bought is recalled you'll know right away. Personally, I plan to avoid the deep-discount stores that are often listed as the source of toys on the CPSC's recall list, a move with which Korn concurs. And I'll be wary of deep discounts and sales on brightly colored and plastic toys in case they turn out to be fire sales of unsafe products. I'll stick to books and wooden toys from companies like Haba and Melissa & Doug for my toddler. I figure it's the best way to keep her safe and both of us jolly for holidays and into the new year.