WASHINGTON - Though decades of effort have made toys safer, children still choke on balloons, get strangled by yo-yo water balls and suffer hearing damage from loud playthings, a watchdog group warned Tuesday in its annual toy safety survey.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group's 20th survey noted that the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported the deaths of 16 children in toy-related incidents last year, along with another 210,000 emergency room visits. Choking on small parts, balls and balloons remains a leading cause of death and injury in children younger than 15.
U.S. PIRG researchers say they found toys for sale that violated a federal ban on small parts in toys intended for children younger than 3. Others meant for children under 6 that included small parts lacked required warning labels.
The research group recommended parents use a choke testing tube or a cardboard toilet paper roll to test small toys and parts. If any toy or part fits in the tube, then it is too small for children under 3 or older children who still put things in their mouths, it said.
The group also found that manufacturers continue to market latex balloons to children younger than 8, despite the choking risk. Children that young should never be given balloons to play with, the report recommended.
Tuesday's report singled out yo-yo water balls as a potential strangulation hazard. The liquid-filled balls are attached to stretchy cords that can used to swing them overhead like a lasso. The group said their sale should be banned.
CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said the products have not been recalled, but the government recommends that parents cut off the toy's cord. The commission is to release its own toy safety report on Nov. 30.
The U.S. PIRG group also recommended that shoppers avoid buying toys that seem too loud, since children can be even more sensitive to noise than adults. Researchers said they found some noisemaking toys, including toy electric guitars, that appeared to exceed voluntary standards.
"A child's hearing is so critical for development. Even partial hearing loss can result in an impaired ability to speak and acquire language," said Alison Cassady, U.S. PIRG's research director. The group recommends taping over the speakers of excessively loud toys or simply removing their batteries to protect a child's hearing.
Tuesday's report also said that testing revealed that some toys, pacifiers and other products labeled as "phthalate-free" actually contained the chemicals, which are used to soften plastics but are potentially hazardous.
"Obviously, we find that to be very disturbing," said Cassady, adding that her group has petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to investigate its findings. The FTC did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
Wolfson said there is no cause for concern, as testing has revealed the chemicals aren't present in sufficient quantities to pose a threat.
Toys sold in the United States are the most regulated and monitored in the world, according to the Toy Industry Association. The trade group said in a statement on its Web site that parents should read packaging before purchasing a toy and that "there is no substitute for adult supervision."
On the Net:
Consumer Product Safety Commission: http://www.cpsc.gov
U.S. PIRG toy safety: http://www.toysafety.net
Toy Industry Association: http://www.toy-tia.org