Choking hazards for children persist in marketplace

By Darlene Superville Associated Press Writer
Tuesday September 11, 2001

WASHINGTON — Every year, more children die from choking on toys and their parts than from any other injury involving toys. Yet nearly every week the government recalls another plaything or clothing item because they have parts small enough to kill. 

Sixteen children under age 12 died from toy-related injuries in 1999, the most recent federal statistics show. Nine choked. 

Among the casualties: a 17-month-old boy from Chillicothe, Ill., who choked on a miniature pool ball; and an 11-year-old Lubbock, Texas, girl who sucked in a latex balloon. 

The hazard has become more noticeable at fast-food restaurants that give away toys with their kids’ meals. Millions have been recalled in the past few years. 

Consumer advocates say manufacturers should do more to guarantee toy safety, such as improve testing. Toy makers say they already follow strict standards and don’t know what more to do. 

In the middle is the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has no authority to test products it regulates before they land on store shelves. 

“All of these manufacturers should be testing the product and subjecting it to the type of use and abuse that it’s going to receive by children,” said Mary Ellen Fise of the Consumer Federation of America. She blames many of the recalls on companies’ failure to test their products fully. 

Alan Schoem, director of the safety commission’s compliance office, said toy makers always could do more and better testing. But he said the system, as it is, works. 

Schoem said a new program is getting information to parents quicker. It has cut the time before a recall is announced to weeks instead of months. More than half of all recalls are now done using the newer procedure, he said. 

But consumer advocate Fise said the maximum fine for companies that break the law by not reporting problems with their products should be increased from $1.65 million, pocket change for many businesses. 

“That might help send a message to companies to be more diligent,” she said. 

Toy makers and importers are being vigilant about product safety, said Aaron Locker, a lawyer for the Toy Industry Association. The trade group’s 250 member companies account for 85 percent of U.S. toy sales, worth about $23 billion in 1999. 

“Who in their right mind ... would want to bring in a toy that’s going to be banned and have to be recalled?” Locker asked. “Doesn’t make sense.” 

He noted, however, that products not up to U.S. standards sometimes get through customs. 

And despite the testing these products go through to meet federal and industry standards, items that clear the lab can be found later to have dangerous hidden hazards. 

Unlike the Food and Drug Administration, which tests medical devices before doctors can use them, the safety commission has no similar authority over any of the 15,000 types of products it regulates. That places the burden for product safety on the industry. 

Locker said the toy industry has a set of voluntary safety standards that are followed by most U.S. toy makers and importers. It also conducts annual toy-safety seminars in the United States and China, where about 70 percent of the toys sold in America are made. 

The government also sends staff to China regularly to explain U.S. toy regulations. 

Choking was responsible for more than half, or 117, of the 190 toy-related children’s deaths reported to the government between 1990 and 1999. 

At fast-food restaurants, more than 37 million giveaways have been recalled since 1999, including more than 25 million plastic balls holding a popular Pokemon toy distributed by Burger King; it was linked to the suffocation deaths of two infants. This year, more than 7 million giveaways have been recalled. 

Federal law bans small parts in newly bought toys meant for children younger than 3. 

A law signed by President Clinton requires choke-hazard warnings on all toys with small parts intended for children ages 3 through 6, and on small balls, marbles and balloons. 

And toys or toy parts that come loose during testing should be checked using a test cylinder 1 1/4-inches in diameter, half an inch smaller than the cardboard tube from a roll of toilet paper. Anything that passes through the cylinder cannot be sold for children under 3. 

The Consumer Product Safety Commission spends about half its roughly $52 million budget on children, and recalls of children’s products represent about half of the 300 or so recalls announced annually. Of those, about one-third are for possible choking hazards, officials say. 

But recalling a product should be a last resort, said Rachel Weintraub, of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which releases an annual Christmastime report on unsafe toys. 

Her advice: Don’t assume toys are safe because they’re in stores. 

Choking hazards are most serious in children under 3 because they’re most likely to put things in their mouths. 

To that end, one company is developing an alternative to latex balloons, blamed for the most choking deaths in children because they break into small pieces when popped. 

Marketing Innovation Enterprises, of New York, is working on “Myloons,” made of a high-density polyethylene that is designed not to break into little pieces.