WASHINGTON - Holiday shoppers should look out for toy hazards such as small parts, loud sounds, soft plastics and lead contamination, consumer advocates warned earlier this week.
These dangers were highlighted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in its 24th annual "Trouble in Toyland" report, the first since sweeping consumer safety legislation went into effect earlier this year.
"This is definitely a time when people are going to be thinking about making purchases for the holidays, so we want people to be aware of these hazards," said Elizabeth Hitchcock, public health advocate for U.S. PIRG.
The organization focused on four hazards: small parts that can choke children younger than 3-years-old, loud toys that can cause hearing damage, lead-tainted toys and soft plastic toys that contain chemicals called phthalates.
Hitchcock encouraged parents to use http://toysafety.mobi, specially designed for use with mobile phones, to look up toy hazards while they are shopping.
The Toy Industry Association responded with a statement warning parents not to be "needlessly" frightened by these types of reports, which "often ignore or misinterpret the facts."
Government safety officials assured shoppers that toys are safer this year than in previous holiday seasons.
"We feel that parents should have more confidence this year for toys than past years because we are enforcing the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act," Consumer Product Safety Commission Chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum said in an interview.
Choking is the number one cause of toy-related deaths and injuries, according to the report. Hitchcock said not all toys bear the required choking warnings and that if a toy can fit into a toilet paper tube it is too small for children under three.
The group is also concerned about toys that just barely meet CPSC standards on small parts. U.S. PIRG encouraged the agency to make the choking standards more strict.
U.S. PIRG also focused on loud toys, because nearly 15 percent of children between 6 and 17 years old show signs of hearing loss. The CPSC recently adopted new standards addressing this risk. Hitchcock said her group wanted to alert the CPSC that it was finding problems in this area.
In addition to toys such as play cell phones that are intended to be held next to the child's ear, Hitchcock noted that most noisemaking toys may pose risks because they are often held only as far away as the child's arm length.
Tenenbaum responded that her agency will continue to monitor the new standards for noisy toys. "But at this point we have really focused on lead, phthalates and just the overall safety of a product," she said.
The report does warn against lead contamination and phthalates, both of which were subject to tougher standards in the Consumer Protection Safety Improvement Act passed last year.
The group found violations of the new lead paint standards, as well as a cell phone charm that contained 71 percent lead by weight.
Lead poisoning can cause irreversible learning disabilities, behavioral problems and, at very high levels, seizures, coma and death.
U.S. PIRG found two children's products that contain phthalates, a lunch bag and a purse. These chemicals are widely used to make plastic products softer and can cause health problems.