Danger Still Lurks in the Toy Chest

Parents can't take the safety of their children's toys for granted.

Braden holds magnet type

Six months ago, it seemed like hardly a day went by without a recall of dangerous toys made in China. Problem solved? Hardly. The recalls keep on coming, and so do the life-threatening injuries to children caused by dangerous toys. At present, toy manufacturers and importers don't have to test toys for safety before they're marketed. Instead, our children are the guinea pigs. Consider:

  • On January 23, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a recall of Battat Magnabild toys, because the small magnets can cause potentially fatal intestinal blockages if swallowed.
    • On February 6, eeBoo children's sketchbooks were recalled because the spiral binding is coated with toxic lead paint.
      • On February 7, pewter pendants and candle charms were recalled because they contain high levels of lead.
      • Tate Leisy knows all too well what dangers children face from hazardous toys, even, in some cases, after they've been recalled.

        Last February, Leisy, a 29-year-old restaurant manager in Severance, Colo., took his 3-year-old son, Tegan, to the emergency room because the boy was vomiting and saying his tummy hurt. An X-ray revealed something that looked like a bolt, and the doctors sent the family home, telling them to wait and see if it passed. Tegan got worse the next day, so they took him back to the hospital. He was admitted, and more X-rays showed the metal object wasn't moving. After three days of monitoring, Leisy woke up to find Tate vomiting bile. "I knew something was drastically wrong," the father says.

        Tegan was rushed into surgery. Two hours and 15 minutes later, the surgeon came out holding a cup with six tiny magnets in it. Leisy was stunned because he knew what they were; rare-earth magnets from his older son's Magnetix toy. "I was just flabbergasted that Tegan had swallowed the magnets," Leisy says. The super-powerful magnets had come together in Tegan's intestine and ripped 11 holes. The doctors had to remove six inches of his intestine.

        His boy is doing fine now, but Leisy is angry that his family, and many others, have been harmed by dangerous toys. After the harrowing experience, he Googled the Magnetix toy and found that it had been recalled a year earlier, after 33 children had been injured and one had died. But Tegan's brother's toys had been bought after the 2006 recall; manufacturers and stores aren't required to take recalled toys off the shelves. "Man, this isn't right," Leisy says he thought. "Why is this toy still on the market?"

        Good question. The CPSC can demand recalls of dangerous toys, but it has never used that power. What's more, the agency can't reveal safety problems revealed by manufacturers. And it's not illegal to sell recalled toys. So even parents who scan the almost-daily reports of recalls on cpsc.gov—and compare the listed items to toys already in the house or to ones they might buy in the future—can't be entirely free of worry. Doctors are becoming more aware of the risks, too. An article in the February Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine warns physicians that it can be hard to diagnose problems caused by swallowing rare-earth magnets; often the children don't appear sick but can be suffering serious harm.

        In late December, the House passed legislation that would put some teeth into toy safety. Manufacturers would be required to have toys tested by an independent lab before they're sold. Strict limits would be set for lead content in toys and jewelry. Selling recalled products would be prohibited. And fines would be increased to punish companies that sell dangerous toys.

        The Senate is expected to take up its own version of toy-safety reform the week of February 25. Leisy came to Washington last week to tell policymakers his family's story, in the hope that it will help speed legislation along. "I hope that this bill passes to protect our kids," the inadvertent toy-safety expert says. "It would basically take toy testing away from our kids and put it in the hands of someone who is responsible." Sounds like the way the system should work—using the power of the law to protect those who can't look out for themselves.