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Balloons, plastic rattles top new list of toys that kill children

WASHINGTON—A consumer watchdog group warned parents Tuesday against toys that can choke, strangle or deafen children or contain potentially toxic chemicals.

The caution, coming just before massive post-Thanksgiving sales on Friday, which launches the holiday buying spree, cited some toys that may violate a federal ban on small parts in toys intended for children under age 3. Among them are small plastic rattles with metal balls and tiny finger paint sets.

Researchers for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an offshoot that consumer advocate Ralph Nader helped found, also attacked the Yo-Yo Water Toy—essentially a ball on a rubber tether—which they said could strangle a child.

Toy-related injuries have killed 272 children since 1990, according to the group. Last year they killed 16 children and provoked more than 200,000 emergency room visits. Over the past 15 years, 157 kids died after swallowing balloons, marbles, small balls and other toy parts, the group reported. Falling off riding toys such as scooters caused the second largest number of deaths, 73.

Alison Cassady, PIRG's research director, advised parents to think about how toys fit their kids before they buy.

"Parents should think about it in terms of, `How does my child play with toys,'" she said. "If your little girl always puts things in her mouth, then don't buy toys with small parts."

How small is small? The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission advises that if a toy or detachable toy part can fit through a cardboard toilet paper tube, then it's too small for toddlers under 3 or kids who put toys in their mouths. The agency requires warning labels on toys with small parts aimed at children between ages 3 and 6.

PIRG and the federal product safety commission—which will release its own hazardous toy list next week—disagree on the danger posed by phthalates, a toxic chemical used to soften plastic. PIRG researchers claim to have found "detectable" phthalate levels in some teething rings and pacifiers, but commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said "trace" amounts pose no risk.

"Exposure is the key," he said. "In this case it's not enough to say to parents that your child is in danger."

His agency and PIRG researchers also disagree on whether noisy toys can be dangerous. PIRG found some that blasted more than 100 decibels into ears an inch from the sound source, but the commission has never banned a toy for loudness.

Gary Klein, senior vice president of the Toy Industry Association, which represents toy manufacturers, said that none of the toys that PIRG criticized was "an inherently dangerous toy."

"As long as parents read the label," Klein said, "there is absolutely nothing to worry about."

That doesn't mean that toys won't break into swallowable parts, however. "No toy is guaranteed to be break-free," he said.

PIRG's Cassady also criticized balloon manufacturers whose products are inscribed with such messages as "Happy First Birthday." Since 1990, 68 children have choked to death on balloons. The commission requires that the packaging on balloons state that they're for kids ages 8 and up.

Other toys on PIRG's caution list:

_Animal Pal Books, by Playmore Inc. Publishers. Velcro tab rips off easily and could choke a child.

_Hot Wheels Rev-Ups Speed Shifters, by Mattel. Rubber tires pop off and could be swallowed.

_Bungee-Roos by Ganz. The 12-inch toggle cord could strangle a child.

_Elite Operations Quantum Blast Set, by Geoffrey Inc. Emits 100-decibel blast an inch from the speaker.

_KidConnection Electronic Guitar, by Wal-Mart stores. Puts out 117 decibels.

To read the Public Interest Research Group report, go to www.toysafety.net

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CNS-TOYSAFETY

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