Zhu Zhu Pets Are OK: Here’s How to Find Out if Other Toys Are Safe

New federal safety laws should mean less toxic lead and fewer phthalates in holiday toys.

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Parents around the nation breathed a sigh of relief with the news that Zhu Zhu Pets, those adorable robot hamsters, are not contaminated with antimony, a metallic element that can cause heart and lung problems. Zhu Zhu Pets are the "it" toy of the 2009 holiday season; more than 6 million of the fuzzy cuties have been sold so far, meaning that there would have been a lot of very disappointed kids on Christmas morning if the toys had indeed been tainted.

GoodGuide, a website that ranks the safety and sustainability of toys and household products, had reported over the weekend that Mr. Squiggles, one of the Zhu Zhu Pets, contained antimony at levels of 93 to 106 parts per million, in excess of the federal standard of 60 parts per million. Cephia LLC, the manufacturer of Zhu Zhu Pets, quickly posted its own toxicology report on Mr. Squiggles. The CPSC examined the report and gave the little guy a clean bill of health. It turns out that GoodGuide had conducted its test with a hand-held X-ray fluorescence analyzer, which is considered less accurate than the methods required of manufacturers, which test the levels of soluble contaminants in a toy. Good for Mr. Squiggles, but what about all the other toys destined to be under the tree?

Toy manufacturers are required to test toys for lead and other contaminants as a result of a much-needed upgrade of toy safety laws last year. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 effectively banned lead, a toxic metal that causes brain damage, and phthalates, plastic softeners suspected of disrupting the body's hormonal system, in toys. The legislation also called for the CPSC to create a searchable database of recalled toys. That database hasn't yet been built, and there are still plenty of toys being sold with lead and other contaminants; just look at the long list posted at the CPSC toy recalls website. Here are three steps to find out if the toys you buy for your children are safe:

  • Check the list of CPSC toy recalls for any toys you're considering. The site includes photos, which helps sort out which toy is which.
    • Buy from big retailers, which do their own safety testing of toys and closely monitor recalls. Be extra cautious when buying from thrift shops and small retailers, which don't always have the staff to keep up on safety recalls.

    • When seeking general consumer advice on toys, go with big-name consumer sites like Consumer Reports, U.S. PIRG, and Safe Kids USA, rather than smaller efforts like GoodGuide. While we accurately reported the chemical levels in the toys that we measured using our testing method, we should not have compared our results to federal standards, GoodGuide said in a written release on the Zhu Zhu Pets flap. We regret this error.
    • And when shopping, keep in mind that some types of toys have historically been repeat offenders when it comes to safety problems. Last year I wrote about five ways parents can protect children from unsafe toys while waiting for the new toy safety law to kick in. That advice is still useful, since despite the new law toys continue to be recalled for lead contamination and other problems. Beware of:

      • Cheap metal jewelry and charms, notorious for being contaminated with lead.

      • Toys that contain rare-earth magnets, which have caused dozens of injuries and at least one death. If the magnets come loose and young children swallow them, they can cause potentially fatal intestinal blockages.
        • Brightly painted toys; adding lead to paint is a cheap way to make red, yellow, and other bright colors that appeal to children.

        • Plastic, because some still contain phthalates. Choose wooden toys instead or look for phthalate-free toys if you are concerned about potential exposure to endocrine disruptors.