Play it safe with toys

Abby Anderson of the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group holds a toy the group claims to be too loud for children as she talks about toy safety.

A children's book. An Elmo phone. A plastic sleeping mask.

All made the 26th annual "Trouble in Toyland," a report on potentially dangerous toys presented recently by the New Jersey chapter of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group at the Rainbow Castle Preschool.

"It's incumbent on all of us as consumers. ... When we buy toys, we make sure they don't present hazards." said Cindy Miller, deputy director at the New Jersey Department of Consumer Affairs.

Toy dangers were divided into four categories by PIRG: choking risk, lead content, plastic chemical content and unsafe noise levels. Here are some things to look for when evaluating a toy:

--To check for choking risks, Abby Anderson of NJPIRG recommended a toilet paper roll test: if the toy can fit through the tube, it's a hazard. Balloons, small balls and toys with small component parts are also a danger.

--Plastic toys may also contain phthalates, a chemical that softens plastic and poses a danger to children.

--Despite tightened standards for lead content, some toys still violate the allowable levels. Miller said brightly colored plastic toys, "the ones that really scream at you," might signal dangerous lead levels.

--Avoid toys that produce sustained noise above 85 deci-bels; for close-to-the-ear toys, such as toy phones and music players, that's 65 dB.

Miller said toymakers who violate safety standards can receive fines in excess of $10,000. One problem parents also could face is old toys, hand-me-downs, or toys purchased secondhand, which may not have been subject to stringent modern safety standards.

The toys presented by NJPIRG were part of a small representative sample collected by the group. "It's so parents know what to look for," Anderson said.

The toys looked harmless, but that's part of the problem. Toys that seem safe, Miller said, can be particularly dangerous.

Of course, it's hard to argue with an old-fashioned stuffed animal. Miller brought along some show and tell -- her childhood teddy bear, Coco.

"Coco will not choke you, make you deaf, or fall on top of you," Miller said, urging shoppers to invest in simple toys that last. "It is a timeless toy. There are other timeless toys out there."