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Navigating the Land of Toy Recalls

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Katey Harbison may be one of the many Grinch's this year for the toy industry. The new mom made it clear weeks ago that there would be no Christmas toys for her baby girl.

"We're asking to put money for her college fund, put it towards anything for her that doesn't revolve around toys 'cause we're really scared," she said.

Harbison is not alone. A national poll taken in October shows a third of shoppers will buy fewer toys this year because of safety recalls. Aleeta Womack is one of those shoppers.
"I'm doing all electronics. Because they're saying lead and all that good stuff and I really don't want to be bothered," Womack said.

This year's recalls took 25 million toys off the shelves. They focused on three main problems: lead paint, small parts and a new trend - magnets.

Consumers are perhaps most worried about lead paint, with high-profile recalls for it like the one with the Thomas Railroad toys.

Also, just last week, an environmental group found one-third of children's products contain lead. The Consumer Product Safety Commission questions the group's research methods, but admits Congress is considering new ways to measure lead.

The highly publicized Aqua Dots recall highlighted the danger of small parts for kids, and pointed out the problem with chemicals like the date rape drug found on the Dots.

The Commission says magnets are the newest hazard.

"If those magnets become liberated and then ingested they can come together in a child's system causing very, very serious problems," said Julie Vallese of the Consumer Product Safety Commision.

The Commission oversees the massive toy industry. It's a difficult job, with three billion toys sold annually, and funding that's been cut through the years.

But now - with 25 million recalls in 2007 compared to just five million last year - a major safety campaign is underway.

Toy manufacturers hope to reassure consumers with safety tips and the Commission is encouraging shoppers to be confident.

"The toys that are in the marketplace right now have been more heavily scrutinized and investigated than in any year past," Vallese said.

But that doesn't mean shoppers and parents should take it easy.

Here are things to watch out for:

Ride-on toys like skateboards and in-line skates often lead to accidents.
Small parts can lead to choking and are dangerous for children under age three.
Magnets which can be swallowed and cause injuries are dangerous for children under age six.
"If parents purchase age-appropriate toys and make sure that their children use them as intended that is one of the greatest ways to increase safety in their home," Vallese said.

Buyers are also urged to read labels for age information and warnings.

And experts say you don't need to automatically avoid the 'Made-in-China' label, since all toys must conform to U.S. standards.

Consumer groups add that you can skip home lead testing kits because they are unreliable. Instead, sign up for the Commission's new e-mail recall notification, so you'll be on top of the latest.

If all this talk of toy safety seems to put a damper on your Christmas spirit, consider the Gill family.

Seven-year-old Isaiah, five-year-old Elizabeth and three-year-old twins Esther and Joseph love to play with their toys every day. Their mom, Ellen, says she has no plans to forgo toys this Christmas, but she will be paying close attention to labels.

"I always look at the box and see what age level they say," she said.

And Gill will continue with a family system that works for them: Toys that are safe for all the kids stay in the den, and toys with small parts are kept in the older kids' rooms.

"Everything for me is always put into Rubbermaid bins," she said. "It really does seal and the 3-year-olds cannot open it."

With the focus on safety this year, some industry analysts believe toy sales will be flat. But for many parents and shoppers, working through such concerns is a small price to pay compared to the magic you see when a child gets lost in the wonder of a toy.