Santas need to make sure the toys they buy are safe TO YOUR HEALTH


December 15, 1992|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Contributing Writer

Women make a majority of the decisions about their family's health care, and closely associated with the well-being of children is good judgment about the kinds of toys they receive during the holidays.

This should be a worry-free time for families with small children, yet of the nearly 200,000 people treated for toy-related injuries last year, almost half were children younger than 5. They're at an age when they're entirely dependent on adults for decisions about toy safety.

Public interest groups such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) are heralding their annual warnings about unsafe toys, but the message cannot be repeated too often: Common sense must be your shopping guide when you're buying toys for children of all ages.

Q: What are the most common toy-related injuries to children?

A: Choking -- on marbles, small parts, balloons and tiny balls -- remains the leading cause of deaths involving toys. Tricycles, scooters and other riding toys also are involved in a substantial number of injuries.

Q: At what age are children first exposed to toy hazards?

A: Infants can become tangled in the strings of toys draped across cribs. If a crib toy has strings longer than 12 inches, don't buy it. And any toy with elastic can be hazardous to young children.

Q: Are crib gyms safe?

A: Yes, as long as the child isn't able to get tangled in them. As soon as he or she can pull up on hands and knees, the gyms should come down to avoid injuring their necks.

Q: Packaging often has guidelines that explain the ages at which toys are safe. Should adults follow those suggestions?

A: Labeling such as "For ages 3 and over" often is misunderstood by adults. They assume it refers to the child's intellectual capacity; and since few parents or grandparents think their child is of average intelligence, they tend to purchase toys designed for older boys and girls.

Instead, the labeling refers to the makeup of the toy and the fact that it may contain small parts, elastic or strings which cannot be handled by children younger than the age mentioned on the package. And there is solid logic behind the labeling. Children younger than 3 routinely put objects into their mouths.

Also keep in mind small children often have brothers and sisters who are 3 or older. If they share toys, it is extremely important to read the labels on all toys for the family.

Q: What are suggestions for toys without packaging guidelines?

A: Many people save money at yard sales and flea markets. but it is important to keep a few things in mind when purchasing older toys since they can be worn and may have been manufactured before safety standards were legislated. They probably wouldn't be allowed on the market today.

The CPSC says a good overall rule is that children under 3 should not be given hand-me-down toys. But if you see something you know your child will love, be sure to look for sharp edges and points. Try the parts to make sure they don't come off, particularly if they are small. And carefully check used strollers and carriages that often have missing parts or loose hardware. Experts warn that sharp edges and pointed surfaces are particularly dangerous because children can get in the way of the toys if they are dropped or thrown, or they can fall onto them.

Q: Are there federal guidelines for toy shopping?

A: There is an established safe size for toys for children younger than 3. A small part should be at least 1 1/4 inches in diameter and 2 1/4 inches long. Anything smaller can choke a child.

These reminders are valuable every day of the year. Also keep in mind that guns, darts, air rifles and lawn darts are dangerous and should never be near children. Teach your child to stay away from electricity and don't buy toys with electrical parts. Throw away small pieces or deflated sections of balloons.

And if a bicycle is under your Christmas tree, make sure a helmet goes with it, say people at the Hopkins Injury Prevention Center.

The CPSC has a toll-free hot line at (800) 638-2772 if you want to report a toy-related injury or if you feel a toy is hazardous.

Dr. Matanoski is a physician and professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

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