By Steven Reinberg
FRIDAY, Nov. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Plastic fish squirt guns and plastic ponies containing the controversial compounds called phthalates.
Toy cars and toy earrings laced with lead.
Plastic pet animals that pose a choking hazard.
Consumers heading out on Black Friday should be aware that all these toys are in stores this holiday season, but that they shouldn't find their way into eager young hands, according to the annual toy safety report by the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).
The report, Trouble in Toyland, concentrates this year on substances that can be toxic to children. Several of these toxins have been outlawed under a new U.S. law, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, but some provisions of that law won't take effect until next year.
"We've released this report for 23 years and have identified hazards that are on store shelves," said PIRG spokeswoman Elizabeth Hitchcock.
Choking hazards have been a traditional focus of the report, Hitchcock said, adding, "Choking remains the leading cause of death related to toys."
In 2007, more than 80,000 children under 5 years old were taken to hospital emergency rooms for toy-related injuries, and 18 died, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
But the new report also details toxic threats.
"We focused this year on toxic hazards like lead and phthalates, because the product safety bill that was passed [by Congress] in August takes action, specifically on those two chemicals. But it doesn't begin to take that action until after the first of the year," Hitchcock said.
Those chemicals are still in toys on store shelves, Hitchcock said. "So, it's buyer beware this holiday season," she said.
Phthalates, which can be found in many soft plastic toys, can cause serious problems when exposure occurs in the womb or during crucial stages of development. Problems include premature delivery, reproductive defects, early onset of puberty, and lower sperm counts, according to the report.
In February 2009, toys with a phthalate content that exceeds 0.1 percent will be banned. Currently, the phthalate content of some toys is 40 percent, Hitchcock said.
Lead is another worrisome toxin found in some toys. Exposure to lead can result in lowered IQ, delayed mental and physical development, and even death. According to PIRG, a 4-year-old boy died of lead poisoning in 2006, after swallowing a bracelet charm that was 99 percent lead by weight.
PIRG said it also found a piece of children's jewelry that was 45 percent lead by weight -- more than 750 times the current U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission action levels. The new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act will eventually allow lead only as a trace element, PIRG said.
To avoid toys containing lead and phthalates, Hitchcock urged parents to steer clear of cheap toys from abroad -- particularly those made in China, which produces about 80 percent of all toys sold in the United States.
"In this year's report, the examples that we have were all made in China," Hitchcock said.
The Toy Industry Association (TIA) said, "Toy safety is the number one priority for the toy industry, and the industry has been working year-round to regain consumer confidence.
"The same old advice for parents and consumers applies to ensure safe play -- shop for brands you know at retailers you trust; and especially when there are young children in the home -- read and follow age labeling on toys; demonstrate safe play for your child, and supervise play," the association said in an e-mail.
Dr. Karen Sheehan, medical director of the Injury Prevention and Research Center at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago, and medical director of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids, thinks more must be done to protect children for dangerous toys.
"It is not unreasonable for parents to think that if you can buy a toy in a store, it must be safe," Sheehan said. "However, this is definitely not the case. For decades, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has been under-funded and lacked the resources to be proactive in screening for hazards.