- In 2007, CHOICE tested 30 toys against relevant sections of the Australian standard.
- The bad news: almost half failed tests designed to identify possible choking hazards.
- The good news: none failed tests for the presence of lead and other heavy metals in paint.
- Our toy tests showed many just aren't up to scratch. In a year punctuated with massive worldwide recalls of unsafe toys - when manufacturer and retailer awareness of toy safety should be high - this is of great concern.
- The piecemeal approach to toy safety regulation that applied in 2007 left consumers - and children - more at risk of dangerous products.
The Year of the Toxic Toy: that’s what 2007 was dubbed, with several major recalls affecting respected brands like FISHER-PRICE, MATTEL and RC2 of toys contaminated with lead paint. Further recalls of toys containing small magnets were announced, involving millions of toys worldwide. Again, it was the big brands that were affected, such as MATTEL’s Barbie and Polly Pocket products. Many other toys with less well-known brands were recalled for being a choking hazard.
Regular or unleaded?
In addition to the big, well-known brands, checks of toys sold in showbags at the 2007 Perth Royal Show found many toys contaminated with lead and other heavy metals (cadmium and barium). Many of the toys were also in showbags sold earlier at Brisbane’s Ekka show, and parents were warned to take them away from their kids. Such toys included jewellery, masks, wooden blocks from the popular Play School bag and even fake teeth — which would certainly go in the mouth.
Excessive exposure to lead can cause learning difficulties, brain damage, attention disorders, hearing loss, slowed growth and behavioural problems. It can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin or swallowed, and children are particularly susceptible to it because they can absorb up to 50% of the lead to which they’re exposed (compared to 10% for adults). Eating a chip of lead paint the size of a fingernail would make a child’s lead level dangerously high.
In September 2007, the Federal Government banned toys containing more than a certain level of lead, which means if someone’s caught supplying such toys, they face large fines as well as a costly product recall. The states have since mirrored this legislation to close a loophole that would otherwise have excluded small unincorporated retailers, such as markets, garage sales and discount stores from this legislation (these dealers fall under the jurisdiction of the states).
In the wake of the lead paint fiasco, we ran our own small test. Our toy testing expert, who has a keen eye for potential problems, went toy shopping and chose 30 toys from various outlets: larger retailers, markets and discount stores (‘two dollar’ shops).
As with our more recent test, we targeted toys that would appeal to under-threes, even if the labelling said they weren’t suitable for this age group. We’ve often found baby rattles and other obviously infant toys bearing this warning, in effect making it nothing more than a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the manufacturer. As the ACCC points out, any toy that could be reasonably regarded as suitable for a child aged three years and under must comply with the mandatory toy standard.
While none of the painted toys we tested exceeded the maximum permitted lead levels, 14 toys — almost half — didn’t pass one or more other safety tests from the toy standard and could become a choking hazard.
- 11 had small parts break off after our tester dropped them or applied pressure or tension.
- One wooden puzzle had a piece that was small enough to present a choking hazard.
- Two sets of squeezy toys each contained toys with sections small enough to become a choking hazard.
- Four had easily accessible battery compartments.
- Three of the 14 carried no age suitability information or warnings, while two were labelled as suitable for kids under three (from three months and 18 months, respectively).
None of the toys bought from larger retailers failed the testing.
The blame game
After our 2007 test, CHOICE called for a national product safety system, involving improved collection of information about product-related injuries; mandatory bans and recalls of unsafe products, and detailed recall notices; and identical laws and consistent enforcement throughout the country, with a single main agency replacing the current mix of national, state, territory and local regulations. That has now come into place with the Australian Consumer Law introduced in January 2011, covering consumer rights, unfair contracts, product safety and compliance.
Here are some examples of the failures we found in our 2007 test.
The smallest cloud in this farm puzzle failed the ‘small parts’ test.
After being informed of our findings, the distributor, Kool Fun Toys, immediately moved to ensure that the cloud can’t be removed in further production runs of the puzzle.
This unbranded ‘Snail Drum’, bought from Sydney’s Paddy’s Market, failed the drop and tension tests, with several pieces breaking off and the plastic body shattering.
Also, the battery compartment could easily be opened by a child, giving access to the batteries.
These squeezy, squeaky bath toys failed the ‘shape and size’ test: they had sections that were small enough to be partially ingested and become a choking hazard.
Except for the ducks, the squeakers could be easily removed too, failing the small parts test.
This ‘Ninjasentai’ action figure had several loose small parts as well as small parts that were removed by pulling.
The packaging carried no age-related warnings.