Trouble in Toyland? You Can Relax About These Holiday Toy Warnings

by ParentCo. December 15, 2017

A guy holding a fidget spinner

A fidget spinner that gives kids lead poisoning? A game that your child can choke on? A party decoration that will suffocate young guests?

If you're not careful, these toxic toys might end up harming your kids this holiday season. That's the message of California's Public Interest Research Group's 32nd annual Trouble in Toyland report. If previous years are any indication, CALPIRG's report will be the next big scary story on your local television news broadcast.

The report opens with the assertion that "toys are safer than ever before," followed by a metaphorical "however" in the form of pages and appendices devoted to this year's killer toys, which CALPIRG's researchers found on store shelves between October 2016 and October 2017. CALPIRG's report does suggest room for improvement, but it should not change parents' approach to holiday shopping. Here's a run-down for the toys on their naughty list:

Lead-contaminated fidget spinners

CALPIRG's report includes two fidget spinners contaminated with lead, which they suggest is in violation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission's lead standard.

Two fidget spinners purchased at Target contained lead. The Fidget Wild Premium Spinner Metal had parts that tested for 550ppm and 1,300ppm lead. The Fidget Wild Premium Spinner Brass had parts that tested for 22,000ppm and 33,000ppm lead. Both spinners are well above the 100ppm standard required of all the "accessible parts" in children's toys.

The lead contained in these two toys is not illegal. The age listed on the packages is "14+," and the CPSC's lead standards apply only to products designated for children aged 12 years and under. Because the spinners are not designated as children's products, they're not held to the same lead standards as children's toys. CALPIRG reasons that fidget spinners be categorized as children's toys so that they will be held to the lead standard.

CALPIRG is currently declaring victory on its homepage, cheering Target's decision to remove those two fidget spinners from shelves. Their analysis, however, should not make parents fear fidget spinners for two main reasons:

First, this report lacks scale, which heightens the sense of danger. We know only that the researchers bought "several" fidget spinners at "local stores." We don't know how many fidget spinners they purchased. We don't know how much lead – if any – was detected in those spinners. We don't know how many different spinners were available for purchase at those stores, meaning that we're left with no real sense for what percentage of the spinners were contaminated.

Second, the report provides few details about the investigation that discovered the lead. We know that the researchers used a CPSC-approved lab and lead testing method. However there are a few details left out of the report, namely that paint and base metals should be tested separately. CALPIRG's report does not offer separate lead counts for the paint and base metal.

The lead testing method is intended for use on "accessible parts," but CALPIRG's researchers have not asserted that they tested only accessible parts or even how they've chosen to define "accessible." We would need a great deal more information to determine that the toys were dangerous, even if the lead counts were accurate.

Games with unlabeled choking warnings

The same kind of methodological problems exist in CALPIRG's study of unlabeled choking hazards. We know that three wooden peg games purchased by the researchers did not have printed choking warnings.

This choking "hazard" suffers from the same problem of scale as the fidget spinners. We know that the toys were purchased at The Dollar Tree. We don't know what percentage of wooden peg toys these purchases represent. Without a denominator, we cannot know how many of these toys could be classified as dangerous.

It's also unclear whether the toys are dangerous to begin with. It's true that the toys do not have choking hazard warnings, and that the small parts included in those toys fail to pass the CPSC's cylinder test. But they also do not have any listed age range. A more responsible report would indicate that the toy should include an age range, not that toys are being marketed to young kids without appropriate choking warnings.

Balloons marketed to the wrong age group

CALPIRG opens its section on balloons by labeling them "the most serious choking hazard to children in the United States."

While it is true that balloons do cause more suffocation deaths than any other children's product, that information is both true and misleading, as the overall number of non-food choking deaths is generally under 10 children per year. The report makes balloons seem particularly dangerous, and the sellers of those balloons guilty by association. In this case, the balloons sold by the Dollar Tree, most of which are in full compliance with CPSC standards, are portrayed as negligent.

The problem here is not that balloons are being unsafely marketed, it's that they are being labeled according to competing standards. This suffocation warning is required to be included on all balloons:

CHOKING HAZARD – Children under 8 yrs. can choke or suffocate on un-inflated or broken balloons. Adult supervision required. Keep un-inflated balloons from children. Discard broken balloons at once.

The researchers found that many packages also included a small parts warning, which is required for all children's products:

CHOKING HAZARD – Small parts. Not for children under 3 years.

There is nothing nefarious here. Balloon manufacturers are making sure to include both warnings in order for their products to be kept in compliance with federal standards. This is less an issue of "safety" and more of streamlining: it would be reasonable for the CPSC to revisit the standard for balloon packaging in order to streamline its message, but the double messages aren't in themselves posing a direct danger to children.

CALPIRG's report identifies clear opportunities for improvement, such as labeling entire products as toys and re-wording confusing product labeling. These reasonable suggestions, however, should not make parents concerned about hidden toy dangers. If this report is representative, Toyland isn't very troubled at all.



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