Checking It Twice 'Dr. Bob' the toy inspector tries to play fair. But it's his job to get dangerous playthings off shelves before they fall into the wrong hands.

December 06, 1997|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

GAITHERSBURG -- The Christmas rush is long over for Bob Hundemer.

Oh, he's still got shopping to do, no doubt. But this fall, long before most parents had even thought about trolling the superstore aisles in search of the toy of the moment, Hundemer, like Santa, was busy in his workshop. But instead of putting toys together, Hundemer was, as always, tearing them apart.

For more than a decade now, the elfin-faced Hundemer has been pulling eyes and noses from teddy bears, dropping plastic Big Birds from crib height to the floor, and flinging cereal-box premiums from one side of his workshop to the other.

It's not that Hundemer hates toys, or children. On the contrary, at 51, he's the father of two young kids he loves dearly. It's just that as the U.S. government's chief expert on toys and products for children, it's his unfortunate task each year to test questionable toys. If noses can pop off bears, no matter how cute or expensive, or Big Bird can shatter into a dozen sharp pieces when a toddler tests gravity, it's Hundemer's job to tell manufacturers -- and parents -- NO!

He may be paid to play with new toys as hard as he did when he was a kid, but his work is certainly not all fun and games.

"I wish it was play," he says one day recently while showing a visitor his toy-dissecting tools. "The bloom is off the rose when you've pulled your 10,000th eyeball."

His workshop at the Consumer Product Safety Commission's headquarters in the state's I-270 high-tech corridor is crammed with drawers of tools and shelves of toys. Above it all hangs a big white sign: "Caution: Adults at Play." Here he taps on toys, drops them, beats on them, hammers them. Then he takes a picture of the results and sends it by computer to inspectors around the country who work with manufacturers in their regions to improve toys.

The way Hundemer sees it, he's no grinch. He's more like the ultimate Santa's helper. Instead of stealing Christmas, he is trying to make it better. And in fact, over the years, he and his fellow safety commission inspectors have presided over an evolution in toy manufacturing -- forced it upon the industry, actually.

Toymakers now take pains to attach eyes and noses with large metal washers and screws behind them, so children can't pull them off and possibly swallow and choke on them.

They use higher grades of plastic so storybook characters won't shatter and tear human eyes. For the past two years, a new law has required toy makers to label many toys "Not for children under 3 -- this toy contains a small part." That's Hundemer's doing, too.

The number of child deaths attributed to dangerous toys dropped to 13 in 1996, from 21 the previous year. In the past five years, toy-related injuries treated in emergency rooms have dropped 20 percent, to 140,700 for the year ended Sept. 30.

Eight million items recalled

Still, checking toys to see if they are naughty or nice remains a big job. In fiscal 1997 alone, manufacturers voluntarily recalled 239 products -- 8 million toys, bikes or baby products -- at Hundemer's insistence.

Along the way, he's had to knead slimy stuff through his hands to find itty-bitty sharp pieces of crystal that parents complained failed to dissolve in a clay-making kit. He's donned his Sherlock Holmes hat to learn how a child could have been injured by a toy when parents can't explain it. And he's startled store owners while shopping with his own kids by pointing out faulty products and warning them to expect his inspectors. (His mother-in-law thought him batty when he fussed over defective cribs while shopping for his first-born.)

In 12 years, Hundemer says, he's discovered one immutable truth he applies to toy testing: Children are completely unpredictable. That is what makes them so interesting, he says.

It also means he must constantly be creative.

"You've got to think, 'How's it going to be used?' "

When he began testing toys in 1985, Hundemer found it hard to even walk the aisle of a toy store without spotting a problem. "I was really bad," he says.

But just as a surgeon must become accustomed to the sight of blood, Hundemer has had to become desensitized. In the end, he says, he would be happy if his tombstone read: "Bob was a fair guy."

"I put the hammer down if I have to," he says. "After that, it's pretty much up to everybody else." By that, he means manufacturers and parents alike.

"You've got to do your job as parents. Don't give kids anything smaller than their fist," he advises, holding up a clear cylinder sold in toy stores that helps parents judge whether a part is too small.

Toys are tested all year long. But "stocking time" -- the arrival of tens of millions of Christmas toys small enough to be stuffed into stockings -- begins in autumn, Hundemer says. That's when holiday goods from Pacific Rim countries reach their major port of entry, Long Beach, Calif. He commissions a special set of elves -- U.S. Customs agents he's trained -- to survey new items.

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